the day after

What we saw and heard in Tennessee schools on the day after Election Day

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Fourth- and fifth-graders at Brewster Elementary School in Memphis pause to share their thoughts about the election of Donald Trump as America's next president.

Teacher Nikki Wilks saw her high school students experience a gamut of emotions in her Memphis classroom on Wednesday as their behaviors reflected the polarizing divide in the nation itself.

One student who is a teen mom worried about raising her 3-year-old daughter in a nation led by President-elect Donald Trump. Fearing a climate of escalating anger over race and gender, she told Wilks that she just needed a hug.

Another student came into her classroom wearing a “Make America Great Again” cap, seemingly unphased by the anguish felt by many students in a school with a significant Latino population, a frequent target of Trump’s campaign speeches.

Wilks, a Hillary Clinton supporter, admitted to being “shellshocked” — in and out of tears all morning as she tried to teach her 12th-grade English classes at Kingsbury High School. Many of her students are 18 and had voted Tuesday in their very first election.

“The classes are much more somber than normal,” Wilks said. “It feels somewhat like everyone is walking around on eggshells (and) scared that if we actually vocalize it, we are making it more real, more permanent.”

Across the state, educators tried to offer a safe space for students to process the stunning Election Day results, in which Clinton won the national popular vote by a nose and Trump took the electoral vote — and the White House.

In schools in Nashville, which along with Memphis were in the only Tennessee counties easily won by Clinton, leaders waived off requests by reporters to visit classrooms. The goal was to minimize distractions and let teachers focus on their students, a spokesman said. Meanwhile, at one middle school, leaders of an after-school program let their immigrant students talk through the election and what it means. Many already had experienced the sting of campaign rhetoric, as well as bullying from other students for speaking Spanish.

On social media, educators acknowledged the challenges they faced and turned to their teaching mentors.

shanique

Others saw the election results as a call to action as they prepared to go back to work.

“Tomorrow I will go to work and I will teach my students,” said Rachel Altsman, an English teacher and librarian at the Collegiate School of Memphis, in an entry on Facebook. “We will read a book set in Afghanistan with Muslim characters and practice empathy. We will read poetry and learn to appreciate beauty. I will do everything I can to shield them from the hatred the world throws at them and to put a megaphone up to their mouths to amplify their voices. I will continue to fill our library with books that reflect and celebrate the diversity of our world. I will tell my students that they are beautiful and valuable and integral to the success of this country. I will tell them that God loves them exactly as they are and that there is room for them in the Kingdom.”

At Nashville’s Glencliff High School, Spanish teacher Caroline Miller opted to open up her classes with five minutes of discussion about the election. “I wanted to be a sounding board,” Miller said. “A lot (of students) were extremely upset. One girl in particular said she was on Facebook and there are a lot of memes of black people being deported back to Africa. … That’s a thing they’re talking about.”

The election was on the minds of students of all grade levels.

At Brewster Elementary School in Memphis, children who had been expecting a Clinton victory —and got one in a mock election last week — hoped but didn’t expect Trump will soften his rhetoric.

“Kids are listening and they’re getting hurt by him,” explained fourth-grader Jennifer Guerrero, mentioning the candidate’s frequent negative comments on Hispanic immigrants. “If they come here, it’s not because they want to come and destroy the place. It’s because they have a big reason to come. … Some people need better money to survive better and some people just don’t have homes.”

Her classmate, Jamiera Willis, said Americans should let the president-elect know what they think, even if they didn’t vote for Trump.

“Although he doesn’t get into the office until January, I think people should start writing letters so he can already be organized for when he gets in the office so that he knows what the citizens of America want,” she said.

From left: Terra Flye and Shantorianna Forte are student body officers at Nashville's Stratford High School.
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
From left: Terra Flye and Shantorianna Forte are student body officers at Nashville’s Stratford High School.

At Stratford High School in Nashville, students continued the presidential debate in one criminal justice class. The teacher picked Lawrence Burns to be Trump, which suited the 17-year-old senior just fine. “I would have chosen Donald Trump because he tells the truth about what he’s going to do,” said Lawrence, who expects his candidate to “fight ISIS.”

But Shantorianna Forte, president of the study body at Stratford, had a different viewpoint based on watching all the presidential debates as part of her homework. “(Trump) was being rude. He would interrupt. He seemed very childish. In my economics class, we debated, and the students who liked Trump acted just like him. They would interrupt and were very childish,” said the 17-year-old senior.

Teachers grappled with how to frame the election in a constructive way, especially dealing with the issue of race in a campaign that was often racially charged. Matara Harris, who teaches fourth grade at a Memphis school where most students are black or Hispanic, said the goal is to teach students that “they can still make a difference in their own way.”

“That’s not dependent on who’s in office. It takes all of us together to help the person in office to realize what’s important and what needs to be the focus,” she said.

Chalkbeat reporters Caroline Bauman, Laura Faith Kebede and Grace Tatter contributed to this report.

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: