the americans

Bringing a civics lesson to life, KIPP schools host a citizenship ceremony on campus

PHOTO: KIPP Columbus
Milica Bison, a KIPP Columbus Spanish teacher, led the Pledge of Allegiance at an on-campus naturalization ceremony.

One hundred and fifty immigrants were moments away from taking their oath of citizenship on Tuesday when a high school student named Armando began to speak.

Armando, a sophomore at KIPP Columbus High School in Ohio, took the podium in his school’s cafeteria and delivered an emotional speech in which he described testifying recently in his mother’s immigration proceedings.

“My mom came here for all the freedom that people have here in America,” he told the hundreds of people in the room — immigrants and their families, plus classmates and teachers from KIPP Columbus’s 1,100-student campus.

“But today is not about my mom. Today is about you, and the path you have taken to get here. I understand that becoming an American citizen may have been a difficult path for some of you, and I am so proud of you for reaching your goal.”

Hannah Powell, KIPP Columbus’s executive director, said the speech was “intensely emotional” for everyone in the room. Even the judge presiding over the naturalization ceremony, Algenon Marbley, said he teared up.

“I was quite visibly moved by Armando’s speech,” he said, noting that he has heard many immigration stories in his 20 years on the bench. “When you hear it from a child it’s an even more powerful experience. Everyone could sense the sincerity and emotion of this young man.”

Holding the naturalization ceremony at KIPP’s Columbus campus was Marbley’s idea. The chair of KIPP Columbus’s board since the charter network came to the region a decade ago, he said he considered exposing students to the citizenship process to be “part and parcel of our holistic approach to education.”

The event also offered a sharp contrast to the morning’s news: President Donald Trump had just announced his desire to end birthright citizenship, or the right enumerated in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that guarantees citizenship to all people born in the country.

“I saw the news about citizenship and then to walk into our high school and to welcome 150 new people to our country was just a blessing,” said Hannah Powell, KIPP Columbus’s executive director.

The news went unmentioned during the event. “We weren’t going to allow that to sully or otherwise cast a pall over the ceremony,” Marbley said.

PHOTO: KIPP Columbus
KIPP teacher Milica Bison, board chair Judge Algenon Marbley, and student Armando all participated in the ceremony.

Instead, Marbley quoted writer Ralph Ellison to encourage the 150 new citizens — who came from 53 different countries and ranged in age from infancy to 87 — to see themselves as the newest strands in the great tapestry of America.

Milica Bison, a Spanish teacher who herself became a naturalized citizen three years ago, led the Pledge of Allegiance.

And immediately after the ceremony, the new citizens registered to vote, in an action that Powell said offered a powerful model for KIPP students.

Nationally, KIPP leaders have not shied away from political issues over the past two years, pushing especially for the continuation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the program that has allowed some students to remain in the U.S. without having to fear that they will be deported. KIPP Foundation CEO Richard Barth also committed to support the Black Lives Matter movement in 2016.

Having the ceremony on campus was a natural move, Powell said, because the network’s goal is to prepare students to be active citizens after they graduate.

“For me to shake 150 people’s hands who were just made citizens of our country is something I will never forget,” she said. “I will never forget looking in their eyes to say, ‘Welcome, we’re so glad you’re here — in our school and our country.’”

Time crunch

Specialized high schools lawsuit could delay admissions decisions, New York City says in court filings

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
Asian-American parents and community leaders gathered in Brooklyn to learn about a lawsuit against part of the city's plan to integrate specialized high schools.

New York City students may have to wait longer than usual to learn where they’ve been accepted to high school as the city prepares for a ruling in a lawsuit challenging integration efforts, according to court records filed Wednesday.

The city asked Judge Edgardo Ramos to rule by Feb. 25 on a preliminary injunction to block admissions changes aimed at enrolling more black and Hispanic students in the city’s prestigious but segregated specialized high schools.

A decision would be needed by then in order to meet the “latest feasible date to mail offer letters,” which the city says would be March 18 given the tight timeline around the admissions process.  The delay would apply to all students, not just those vying for a seat at a specialized high school. 

“DOE is mindful that a delay in the mailing of high school offers will increase anxiety for students and families, cause complications for those students considering private school offers, and require specialized high schools and non-specialized high schools to reschedule and restaff open houses,” the letter said.

A spokesman for the education department said the city will “communicate with families when a final offer date has been determined.” Letters were originally scheduled to be sent by March 4.

Filed in December, the lawsuit against the city seeks to halt an expansion of the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who scored just below the cutoff on the exam that is the sole entrance criteria for specialized high schools. The Discovery expansion, slated to begin this year, is one piece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to diversify the elite high schools.

Asian-American parents and community organizations say the expansion unfairly excludes their children. Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, but comprise only 16 percent of the student body citywide.

The suit calls for a preliminary injunction, which would put the Discovery expansion on hold while the case winds its way through the courts — and would disrupt the admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year. The process of matching students to specialized high schools was scheduled to begin this week, the city’s letter states.

The plaintiffs wrote a letter supporting the city’s timeline for a decision on the preliminary injunction, saying their aim is to stop the proposed admissions changes “before they can have the anticipated discriminatory effect.”

Hitting pause on the Discovery program expansion would mean the education department has to recalculate the cutoff score for admission to specialized high schools, consult with principals, work with the test vendor to verify scores, and generate offer letters to send to students, city attorney Marilyn Richter wrote in a letter to the judge.

The education department “has never made such a significant course adjustment midstream in the process before,” she wrote.

Education Inequalities

Is Michigan ready for a ‘grand bargain’ to improve its struggling education system?

PHOTO: Lori Higgins/Chalkbeat
Teresa Weatherall Neal, superintendent of the Grand Rapids school district, speaks during a panel discussion that also featured, from left, Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and former U.S. Education Secretary John King.

A new political dynamic in Lansing has put Michigan in a position to potentially see the kind of education transformation that helped catapult Massachusetts to its status as the top-performing state in the nation, says a former U.S. Secretary of Education.

That bit of optimism from John King, who served as education secretary from 2016 to 2017 and is now the president and CEO of The Education Trust, came after nearly three hours of sobering discussion during an event Wednesday about the need to address inequities in education in Michigan.

Several times, King used the term “grand bargain” to describe what Michigan needs. It’s a term many Detroiters will remember from the Detroit bankruptcy and the deal that was a key part of getting the city out of bankruptcy.

As it relates to education, the term “grand bargain” has been used to refer to the bipartisan agreement struck more than two decades ago in Massachusetts that had broad buy-in from business and education groups, teachers, and parents, to improve academic achievement. The gist: The state invested more money in schools. In return, standards and accountability were increased.

King said Michigan is poised to reach the same consensus and invest more money in education, in particular investing money more equitably so the highest-need students are getting the most funding. He said there needs to be a thoughtful approach to accountability, as well as more investments in teacher preparation and support.

He sees it happening because of new leadership at the state level, including Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and new Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

“This is a moment where the new leadership in Lansing could come together … and it could be truly transformative.”

The event Wednesday, which took place at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, was organized by the Education Trust-Midwest, a Royal Oak-based education advocacy and research organization. The topic was inequities in education and the need to provide equitable opportunities for children regardless on where they live.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the organization, said Michigan ranks 43rd out of 47 states for the funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts.

“Students and families pay the price for this under-investment,” Arellano said.

She said the experiences of states like Massachusetts that have seen striking improvement provide hope for Michigan because they show transformation can happen over five to 10 years.

Michigan has been falling behind other states in performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a national exam that tests a representative sample of students in each state. The state’s performance, in fact, has shown little to no improvement over the last decade.

“We rise and we fall together. In Michigan’s case, we’re falling together,” Arellano said.

The audience at the event’s two panel discussions also heard from speakers such as Nikolai Vitti, superintendent of the Detroit school district. He said that often, when K-12 educators talk about the need for more resources, “you see the rolling eyes of lawmakers.”

But, Vitti said, “It takes funding to educate children. And it takes more funding to educate children who enter … with more challenges.”

Panelists agreed that Michigan is at a pivotal moment because of its new leadership. And they came up with solutions they think will make a difference.

Melody Arabo, outreach specialist at and former Michigan Teacher of the Year, said the state needs to address a lack of resources for educators. She said that in a classroom of 30 students, a teacher can have some reading at the kindergarten level and others “who can read better than I can.”

The materials that teachers have “are not meeting those needs. Teachers spend an average of 12 hours a week going online looking for resources.”

David Meador, vice chairman and chief administrative officer of DTE Energy, said Michigan should look at what successful states have done and adopt best practices. Just as important, he said:“Stick with it. Don’t change it every year.”

For King, the solution to improving schools is simple and starts at a young age.

“If Michigan is going to improve, it will need a surge in high quality early learning that prepares every child for kindergarten or beyond,” King said.