aftermath

‘Emotionally exhausted’ yet inspired by students: A Memphis educator and gun-control advocate reacts to Parkland

Kat McRitchie, at right, appeared with mothers who lost children to gun violence at a rally outside the National Civil Rights Museum. Photo courtesy Kat McRitchie.

By the time America realized the scope of the school shooting that killed 17 people last week in Parkland, Florida, Kat McRitchie was already weary of responding to gun violence.

A Memphis educator and gun-control advocate, McRitchie had spent the evening before at a candlelight vigil for two Memphis teens gunned down near their high school the previous Friday. She’d spent the weekend reeling from that killing.

And as part of a group called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, she’d spent countless hours lobbying for policies that could stem the shootings that claim dozens of young people in her city every year.

“Honestly, my emotional reaction to Parkland was, ‘Ugh, this is terrible. Another school shooting,’ but I was emotionally exhausted by the weekend,” said McRitchie. “It wasn’t until Friday that I let myself listen to the video that the student in the closet had taken and let myself feel a response to that.”

The response, when it came, was one of familiarity. McRitchie, the daughter of a Memphis trauma surgeon who treated many gunshot victims, helps train teachers through Memphis Teacher Residency after years of working in city classrooms of her own.

“I can imagine what it feels like to be a student in that classroom,” she said. “I can imagine what it feels like to be a teacher in that classroom.”

Now, McRitchie is looking for ways to help Memphis join a national response to the Parkland shooting that appears to be gaining momentum, rather than dropping out of the headlines. We talked to her about those efforts, how her advocacy work intersects with her teacher training, the complexity of race in the gun-control debate, and more.

How teaching opened her eyes to the reality of gun violence in Memphis: “I never had a student who was shot when I had them, but I saw them walk through the deaths of their family and friends. There was this culture of what to do when someone you know gets shot. Here are the people you call. Here’s how you decide what picture goes on the T-shirt. Kids now choose a hashtag. How to pick the funeral colors. There was a process for when a teenager dies in the way that I would have a process for getting ready for prom. This was a big part of me understanding how gun violence is affecting my community.”

On the reawakened debate over whether teachers should carry guns: “Kids deserve for us to think more creatively than just increasing school security. I cannot think of a single public school teacher who thinks arming teachers is a good idea. I don’t know any teachers who would want to have a gun. I don’t know any teachers who think having a gun in this situation would make themselves or their students safer. All of them say the likelihood of an armed person entering their school for the purpose of a mass shooting is terrifying but extremely small. But how many times do teachers get their purses stolen in schools or drop their expensive calculators? If we have teachers with guns in schools, that just creates opportunities for accidents. Most school shootings now are things like that. More guns in schools will only mean more deaths in schools or more guns get stolen and end up on the street. Even the teachers who have a fear of mass shootings, if you ask them, all of the everyday things that can go wrong with guns in schools are scarier.”

On the outpouring after Parkland after seeing Memphis teens’ deaths go unnoticed nationally: “It can feel frustrating when we know that black children are way more likely to die than white children because of guns. But the thing that has surprised me a little bit is that of the survivors that I know in Memphis — who are predominantly women of color who have lost children to gun violence — I would not have been surprised if the response to the Parkland shooting was, ‘That’s sad, but we’ve been out here on the front lines.’ That is absolutely not the response.

“Every single survivor mom I know has posts about praying for Florida families, expressing grief and solidarity for Florida families. We recognize that gun violence affects people differently along race and class lines, just like education, but there’s just this very shared human experience in responding to the toll of gun violence. That’s one of the things that has been most moving in the last week: watching women respond with grief and not resentment.”

How her work as a teacher coach overlaps with gun violence advocacy: “Part of my work last week was to order coffee for teachers at the high school where the [Memphis] students were killed. Coffee and donuts in the teachers lounge seems a little silly, but Memphis Teacher Residency is all about ‘pursuing a vision of restored communities living with dignity and peace.’ Even going to the vigil for the kids last week, there were teachers there, and colleagues and community partners were there as citizens. One of my colleagues went to the funeral of the young man who was shot last week. When going to a funeral is part of our jobs as teachers — we shouldn’t tolerate that in this country.”

How Memphis Teacher Residency prepares teachers for violence in their communities: “We do have a counselor on staff. That’s one of the greatest services that MTR provides that our teachers and alumni are able to use. Lockdowns are fairly common — actual lockdowns — because of shootings in the area. I know he has walked teachers through, how does it feel going through your first lockdown, going through the death of students. We as coaches would like training about how to do that better when a school is touched by gun violence.”

On “red flag laws,” which would allow law enforcement to seize guns from people who haven’t actually broken any laws: “Moms Demand Action works really hard to promote common-sense gun policies. The thing that I’ve learned in this movement is that me complaining to my like-minded friends about something doesn’t change anything and just makes us angrier and doesn’t make us safer. But we all want our kids to grow up safe; we all want American schools to be safe places — we can actually agree about these things. By having solutions-minded conversations and pushing for evidence-based gun policy, we can reduce the number of Americans that die of gun violence.

One of the most common conversations that I had with teachers in the last week was, ‘Oh, I know who that kid would be.’ I could tell you from my own teaching experience that if something like that happened, it wouldn’t shock me. Teachers know kids. One option that would empower teachers with their specific knowledge is ‘red flag laws.’ We also know that they reduce suicide by guns.

“I would love for people to know that when the response is, ‘We knew that that person was dangerous,’ we can actually have more potential to stop mass shootings. This would be a great thing for teachers to know about and advocate for.”

What comes next: “Having kids leading the response to this particular moment is incredibly powerful. When kids are leading change, the sky’s the limit. Young people are more engaged and more creative than their elders. and I’m incredibly excited to follow the leadership of young people and to support them.

“And to listen to educators about how to respond to school shootings is imperative. Overwhelmingly, what educators are telling us is not what policymakers are telling us. And we should listen to educators.”

Frequently asked

There are lots of ways schools teach English learners. Here’s how it works.

PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Lindsey Erisman works with 6-year-old students in an English Language Acquisition class at Denver's Cole Arts & Science Academy.

School district officials in Westminster this year signed an agreement with federal officials to change how they educate students who are learning English as a second language.

Similar agreements have also shaped how districts in Denver, Aurora, Adams 14, and Adams 12 educate their English language learner students. But many people, including parents and district insiders, may still have questions about the various complicated programs and requirements.

Although many of the language-education agreements are years old, most of the issues haven’t been resolved. In Adams 14, for instance, parents and advocates have protested a district decision to stop biliteracy programming, and have questioned the district’s compliance with its agreement to better serve English learners. District officials have pointed out that their obligation is teaching students English, not making them bilingual.

Now at least one charter school, KIPP, is looking to fill in that programming gap. Many other states have had a number of biliteracy and other bilingual programs at various schools for years, but Colorado has only more recently started to follow those trends.

So what’s the difference between the various language programs and services? And what is required by law and what isn’t? The following questions and answers might help clarify some of those questions as you follow the news around these issues.

Which students are designated as English language learners? Do parents get to decide, or do schools decide?

Federal guidance requires school districts have some way to identify English learners. Most commonly, districts survey all parents at school registration about their home language and the student’s first language. If that survey finds there might be an influence of another language at home, the student must be assessed to determine fluency in English. While the district has to identify all students who aren’t fluent in English as language learners, parents in Colorado can choose to waive the federally required services for their children. If so, the district doesn’t have to provide special services, but would still be required to monitor that the student is making progress toward acquiring English.

What educational rights do English language learners have?

English language learners have specific rights under the Lau v. Nichols Supreme Court case from 1974 and the subsequent Castañeda standards released in 1981. State laws also outline some requirements for school districts. Specifically, school districts must provide programs for all identified language learners to give them the opportunity to learn English and to access a comprehensive curriculum. The government does not state what that program should be, but provides some standards requiring that any program is theoretically sound and has a research base to support it. The program has to have qualified teachers, and a way to demonstrate that students are making progress in learning English and their academic content. While the civil rights officials consider many details to verify compliance, simply put, school districts have the legal obligation to identify students, serve them in a sound program, and monitor their progress.

What is the difference between bilingual education and “ELL services?”

Bilingual education (which is the program that has the most support for efficacy from the research community) offers students opportunities to learn in their native language while they are learning English. Bilingual programs can vary from short-term, or early-exit programs, to more longer-term developmental programs.

English language learner services do not need to provide opportunities for students to learn in the native language. Most commonly these services only offer English language development classes (generally 45 minutes per day). All other content instruction is offered only in English. ELL services are not bilingual.

What is English language development?

English language development must be a part of any program or model a district or school adopts. It is the class time when students are taught the English language. The government wants to see that English learners are given a dedicated time to learn English, when they are not competing with native English speakers. That means, often, English language development is offered as a time when students are pulled out of class to practice English, or as a special elective period students must take without their English-speaking peers.

The structure of this time period, who has access to it, or who teaches it, are areas commonly cited as problems by the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Do students who are identified as English language learners retain that designation forever? What does it mean to be an “exited ELL?”

They’re not supposed to. Students who are English learners should be tested at least once a year to determine their English proficiency. When a student reaches a high enough level, school staff must determine if the student is now fluent in English. If so, the student becomes an “exited ELL.” The law requires districts to monitor for two years students who have exited and are no longer receiving services. There are, however, students who do not reach English fluency before graduating or leaving school.

What is the difference between being bilingual and being biliterate?

Bilingual generally refers to oral language in that bilingual people can understand and speak two languages but may not be able to read and write in those languages. Biliterate refers to being able to understand, speak, read, and write in two languages. Many people are bilingual but not biliterate. Biliteracy is considered to be a higher form of bilingualism.

What is the difference between dual language and biliteracy models?

Dual language and biliteracy models share many common components. Both models usually have biliteracy as their end goal for students. Dual language models may be “one-way” or “two-way.” One-way programs generally serve students who are designated as English language learners (also sometimes called emerging bilinguals). Two-way dual language programs include students who are native English speakers. The only major difference is that biliteracy models focus on using two languages in the language arts or literacy classes (reading and writing in two languages) whereas dual language focuses on using two languages across the entire school day’s curriculum.

What is an immersion model?

Immersion models traditionally are thought of as referring to programs primarily intended for students from the dominant language population to learn a second language. This is different from programs meant to teach English.

While native English students can choose whether or not to learn a second language, students who are English language learners do not have a choice in learning English.

What is sheltered instruction?

This type of instruction takes place in non-dual language schools, during regular content classes (such as math or science), and it’s one way schools try to make the content understandable to students who aren’t yet fluent in English.

This is especially common in schools where English learners speak a variety of languages. Crawford Elementary in Aurora, for instance, has had up to 35 different languages represented among its approximately 560 students. If there aren’t enough students who speak a common first language and also a teacher who speaks the same language as those students, then schools must teach through English, while making the English as accessible as possible.

In practice, this means an English-speaking teacher would use sheltered instruction techniques to help all children understand the lessons such as, physical props, a focus on building vocabulary, and sentence stems.

Denver designates schools as TNLI schools. What does that mean?

Denver created the TNLI label in 1999 to set the district apart from other bilingual program models. TNLI stands for Transitional Native Language Instruction. The Denver TNLI program is a transitional bilingual education program model with a label created just for Denver. It’s a model where instruction in Spanish is used to help students learn while they’re acquiring English, but still has a goal of making students fluent in English as soon as possible, at which point students move into mainstream English classrooms.

Is one of these models best suited for English learners?

Among researchers, it is commonly accepted that dual language or biliteracy models are the most effective to put English learners on par with their native speaking peers, in the long run.

Why do teachers have to be trained specifically to teach this population of students? What are teachers learning?

Educators and researchers say that teachers need to learn the differences and similarities between learning in one language and learning bilingually. Teachers need to learn about literacy methodology and how teaching literacy in Spanish (for example) is the same and different as teaching literacy in English. They have to learn how to teach English language development to students who are beginning to learn English (it is different than just teaching in English). These trainings also help teachers learn about cultural similarities and differences and about sources of culture conflict. Teachers need to be able to teach children English; how to use English to learn; and how the English language works. In bilingual settings teachers need to learn those three things for two languages. In short, the training needed to be a bilingual teacher is quite different. Colorado will soon require some of this training for all teachers.

What are the challenges districts have in offering these different programs? How do schools decide which type of model to offer?

The demographics of a district’s student population, and district politics play a large part in helping a district decide what model or program to use. Resources can also be a factor in deciding how to structure services or what programs to offer. In Adams 14, when the district leadership decided to pause the roll out of a biliteracy program, the district cited a lack of qualified bilingual teachers, among other things.

In Westminster, the school district’s unique competency-based approach, which removes grade levels and seeks to personalize instruction, was cited as a reason why the district had structured its English language development the way it had before the investigation by the Office for Civil Rights sought to change it.

Does Colorado provide guidance or oversight for how districts are doing this work?

The Colorado Department of Education offers some guidance for districts, but oversight of the districts’ compliance with what is required is limited. In practice, when parents suspect their children aren’t educated well, they have filed complaints with the federal government. In Denver, the complaints went through the Department of Justice. Investigations of most other metro-area districts have been conducted by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

task force

Jeffco takes collaborative approach as it considers later school start times

File photo of Wheat Ridge High School students. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

The Jeffco school district is weighing pushing back start times at its middle and high schools, and the community task force set up to offer recommendations is asking for public input.

Nearby school districts, such as those in Cherry Creek and Greeley, have rolled out later start times, and Jeffco — the second largest school district in Colorado — in December announced its decision to study the issue.

Thompson and Brighton’s 27J school districts are pushing back start times at their secondary schools this fall.

The 50-person Jeffco task force has until January to present their recommendations to the district.

Supporters of the idea to start the school day later cite research showing that teenagers benefit from sleeping in and often do better in school as a result.

Jeffco is considering changing start times after parents and community members began pressing superintendent Jason Glass to look at the issue. Middle and high schools in the Jeffco district currently start at around 7:30 a.m.

The task force is inviting community members to offer their feedback this summer on the group’s website, its Facebook page, or the district’s form, and to come to its meetings in the fall.

Katie Winner, a Jeffco parent of two and one of three chairs of the start times task force, said she’s excited about how collaborative the work is this year.

“It’s a little shocking,” Winner said. “It’s really hard to convey to people that Jeffco schools wants your feedback. But I can say [definitively], I don’t believe this is a waste of time.”

The task force is currently split into three committees focusing on reviewing research on school start times, considering outcomes in other districts that have changed start times, and gathering community input. The group as a whole will also consider how schedule changes could affect transportation, sports and other after school activities, student employment, and district budgets.

Members of the task force are not appointed by the district, as has been typical in district decision-making in years past. Instead, as a way to try to generate the most community engagement, everyone who expressed interest was accepted into the group. Meetings are open to the public, and people can still join the task force.

“These groups are short-term work groups, not school board advisory committees. They are targeting some current issues that our families are interested in,” said Diana Wilson, the district’s chief communications officer. “Since the topics likely have a broad range of perspectives, gathering people that (hopefully) represent those perspectives to look at options seems like a good way to find some solutions or ideas for positive/constructive changes.”

How such a large group will reach a consensus remains to be seen. Winner knows the prospect could appear daunting, but “it’s actually a challenge to the group to say: be inclusive.”

For now the group is seeking recommendations that won’t require the district to spend more money. But Winner said the group will keep a close eye on potential tax measures that could give the district new funds after November. If some measure were to pass, it could give the group more flexibility in its recommendations.