problem solvers

Students look close to home for civic engagement lessons

Young Writers seniors fielding questions during Citizenship Night

“Don’t be nervous,” Academy for Young Writers’ history teacher Stephen Lazar told his 72 seniors last night. The seniors were buzzing around the warm cafeteria, prepping their final citizenship projects for the imminent arrival of evaluators, who would be assessing their work and knowledge. “They’re nervous to hear what you’re going to do with the world.”

The seniors had spent the last six weeks brainstorming problems that effect them and the world, researching different perspectives on those problems, articulating their own policy recommendations, delivering persuasive speeches about their point of views on the issues, and working in groups to compile all of the research and findings on display boards. The groups targeted problems ranging from gentrification to cyber bullying to prostitution.

Citizenship Night was the culmination of the Center for Civic Educations’ Project Citizen, a curriculum Lazar implemented to promote students’ responsible participation in government. Approximately 15 “civic-minded” evaluators – mostly teachers, a couple journalists, a few external education stakeholders – perused the 24 trifold poster boards, clipboards in hand, pushing students to articulate their problems and proposed policies.

On one side of the cafeteria, the group that weighed the pros and cons of legalizing prostitution was continuing the debate amongst themselves.

Gabriela Diaz said that legalizing prostitution can open doors for women, providing them with legitimate business opportunities.

“It’s always going to be there,” Diaz said. “If we legalize it, we can contain it.”

“That doesn’t make it okay, ” group member Faith Rogers contested. If prostitution was legalized, she said, then a lot of the other problems her classmates had researched – like human trafficking and domestic violence – would be exacerbated.

Across the cafeteria, the cyber-bullying group was at consensus about how their problem of choice could be addressed: a virtual attack button. The button would be available on computers for victims to activate when they have been bullied, sending an alert to the police. While the group was unsure that they could logistically garner the financial support and legislative backing for their idea, they found the project valuable nonetheless.

“It made me feel like I have a voice,” Sarah Louissant said. “He’s preparing us for college. We learned about the topic and how to use our time and how to put stuff together.”

“And about statistics,” Stefanee Maynor chimed in.

“And the different techniques that you use to research,” Remy Hayward added.

Lazar noted that the biggest gap between what high school and college classes expect of students is the ability to research. In years past, Lazar had done similar civics projects with his students, but this year he tapped into the Project Citizen curriculum because of it’s emphasis on research. Much of his explicit instruction during this unit was not simply how to distinguish “good” and “bad” sources, but how to evaluate the perspective each source was from and to use it accordingly.

“You can evaluate my job on this work,” said Lazar. “This is valuable work that reveals college readiness. The Regents tests do not do this.” Lazar, who sits on an informal advisory board for GothamSchools, has long been a critic of the state’s Regents exams in history.

Grant Lindsay, an organizer with East Brooklyn Congregation (a community organization helping Young Writers transition to their new Fall 2012 home on the Spring Creek Campus), came to the event to support the school community. As a guest evaluator, the projects Lindsay saw hit close to home.

“It reminds me of when I was in high school because I was very passionate about concerns in my neighborhood,” Lindsay said, recalling the roots of his community organizing efforts. “If you give young people the opportunity to think of creative solutions, they’ll come up with really good things and they’ll succeed.”

Some groups have already taken the initiative to take their research and policy-knowledge to the next level. Rogers, from the prostitution group, is planning to join the Baldwin Foundation, three members from the domestic violence/rape group are tossing around the idea of starting a support group in their neighborhood or school, and the members of the gentrification and education group are reaching out to their communities at home and abroad, advocating for their cause.

Young Writers students filling in their voter registration forms

For example, Rifka Simmons attended the public hearing on Success Academy’s colocation in her current school building. She wrote a speech she had intended to deliver, but had to abandon it as the meeting extended past her curfew time. Still, she says, “I feel like I can be a part of the change.”

And Sydney Parsons will be traveling to Paris in April, through Our Better Angels, to compare the gentrification taking place in Harlem with that in La Courneuve.

“It’s humanly not cool to be splitting families up and removing them from their homes, where they’ve been for years,” Parsons said. Rattling off the effects of gentrification, Parsons paused to regroup her thoughts: “Sorry, I’ve read so much information that I’m getting it crossed.”

As the night wound down, Lazar delivered a “surprise” to his students before their buffet dinner. Standing on a cafeteria bench, with steaming platters of chicken and empanadas below him, Lazar announced that all eligible seniors would be registering to vote before the night’s end.

“Often politicians don’t listen to teenagers, and the reason they don’t listen to teenagers is because they don’t vote,” Lazar said. “Nothing we do the entire year makes a difference if you don’t back it up by being a registered voter.”

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede