Metro Nashville Schools Board of Education. (Photo: MNPS)
In Metro Nashville Public Schools, students speak more than 100 different languages and the majority of immigrants are arriving from non-English speaking countries, but many students don’t currently feel represented in their curriculum.
Members of the Metro Nashville Education Association (MNEA) and representatives of immigrant organizations have found over the last year that children of color have been disproportionately affected during the pandemic year.
At Glengarry Elementary School, for instance, 70% of students have limited English proficiency, according to MNPS enrollment data from this year.
Over the last year, members of the Metro Nashville Education Association (MNEA) reached out to communities across Davidson County in an effort to improve public schools in a post-COVID world.
“MNEA became very interested in community responses during COVID-19 when it seemed that politicians wanted something, teachers wanted something else and the community needed to be the tie breaker,” said Lydia Yousief, director of Elmahaba.
As a result of the community meetings, several immigrant-rights organizations, who felt that their communities needed extra attention to combat barriers they faced throughout the pandemic, formed a coalition
MNEA agreed, and in collaboration with Workers’ Dignity, Elmahaba Center and others, MNEA received a grant from the National Education Association (NEA) Safe and Just Schools program for $75,000 to launch a grassroots campaign for community schools throughout Nashville.
While the term “community school” is not a new concept in Nashville, program resources have in the past largely gone to providing necessities like food and clothing to low-income families. Amanda Kail, MNEA president, said MNEA’s vision of a community school program is to democratize the process of learning what schools actually need.
Starting in September, the program will focus on four Metro Nashville Public Schools each year and trained teams will venture out in the community to survey teachers, school staff, students and families to gather data tailored to help guide school plans.
“We want to ask basically two things: what do you love about your school and what is your vision for your school?” said Kail.
While the data could be used to drive school improvement plans, civil-rights advocates hope the information will address longstanding inequities in public schools.
An investigation in 2019 found Black students were three times more likely to be suspended than white students in Nashville public schools. The move to remote schooling during the pandemic took a heavier toll on children of color and low income children, many of whom had limited access to resources outside of class.
MNPS attempted to address some inequities facing low-income students by distributing several thousand laptops to students lacking them. Despite this, low-income and children of color still struggled due to COVID-related problems, such as financial troubles or food insecurity. According to a report by McKinsey & Company, students of color tended to be behind in their studies by three to five months, while white students had less of a gap.
In communities with large immigrant populations, surveyors plan to use a variety of tactics to remove systemic barriers that previously prevented people from participating. This includes organizing town hall meetings, one-on-one conversations and working with immigrant-rights organizations to remove language barriers.
According to Cecilia Prado, Workers Dignity director, immigrant workers faced language, childcare and transportation barriers when getting involved in school meetings.
“If families are more able to participate and decide what they need in the schools, just to have that group communication and have their needs addressed, that’s a worker’s right issue,” said Prado.
Partnering with immigrant organizations and Safer Schools Nashville, a racial justice group, advocates believe that the community school program will be able to create programs specifically catering to immigrant interests.
While the community school program focuses mainly on 12 high schools, the diversity of the school population in certain zip codes means the community will have the opportunity to ask for specific classes, such as ethnic studies.
“We have lots of families who have had negative experiences with schools. If you think about segregation and overt racism that is the history of our public schools, a lot of families did not grow up with positive experiences,” said Kail.
While critical race theory remains a controversial subject, the community school program will allow residents to voice their opinion on the subject by asking for courses that reflect their racial backgrounds.
“If we go out and talk to our communities and our communities say ‘heck yeah, that’s what we want,’ then that really turns the argument on its head,” said Kail.
Regardless, the community school program aims to remove barriers, allowing parents to become more involved in the improvement of their children’s lives. In this manner, schools become the heart of the community, who then work together to tackle the broader challenges they’re facing.
“We have to figure out how we can all work together to make sure our schools have what they need, because that’s when our students will actually be successful,” said Kail.
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