tuition debate

For these undocumented immigrant students, Tennessee’s failed in-state tuition bill was personal

PHOTO: Grace Tatter

In January, six immigrant students, some of them undocumented, gathered after school in an empty classroom at Nashville’s Glencliff High School to snack on Doritos and gummies and strategize their path to college. Excitement was building about upcoming campus visits, including one to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

“My mom risked her whole life to get us here. I don’t want to disappoint her,” explained one student named Daniela.

This month, their enthusiasm was derailed when a bill to secure in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants was shelved for the session in the Tennessee legislature. Rep. Mark White, the House sponsor from Memphis, announced last week that he just didn’t have the votes to pass the bill, which was approved last year by the Senate but failed in the House by one vote.

The Glencliff students are all sophomores, so it’s still possible that the next General Assembly will reintroduce and pass the bill before they graduate from high school. For now, however, they live in a state where some of them won’t qualify for in-state tuition, even though they are good students.

As undocumented immigrants, they are also barred from Tennessee Promise, a state program waiving tuition to community colleges if they complete a nine-month process for approval. Because out-of-state tuition is prohibitively high for most families, the program is viewed as the best pathway to college in Tennessee.

The Glencliff students were hoping that this year would be different in the legislature and that they could complete high school knowing that they have financially plausible options to attend in-state schools. Finding avenues to encourage students to pursue post-secondary education is one of the pillars of Gov. Bill Haslam’s education platform, and the governor supported the in-state tuition bill.

On the House floor last week, White choked up with emotion as he shared how undocumented students cried in his office the day before when he told them he wouldn’t bring up the bill for a vote.

Opponents had argued that the bill was more about immigration than education — that offering non-American citizens in-state tuition was a slippery slope that could lead to undocumented immigrants receiving other state benefits. During the last year, anti-immigration sentiment has been stronger than ever as legislators sought to block refugees from entering Tennessee.

Despite the hurdles, the Glencliff students say there are a multitude of reasons why they are determined to go to college.

“We’re willing to get an education. We’re ready. We’ll have gone through 12 years of school, just for the law to say, ‘hey, no, you can’t continue,’” explains Keyli, who like Daniela and the other undocumented students asked not to be identified by their last names to protect their families over their legal status.

Keyli and Daniela are part of Early Escalera, a national program that aims to support immigrant students, documented as well as undocumented, as they achieve their post-secondary education goals. The program continues into junior and senior years of high school, when it is just called Escalera.

"There’s this misconception that if you’re undocumented, you can’t go to college."Karla Coleman García, Conexión Américas

“There’s this misconception that if you’re undocumented, you can’t go to college,” says Karla Coleman García, a Vanderbilt University graduate student and policy manager at Conexión Américas who leads Glencliff’s chapter of Escalera. García herself was undocumented until she was 13. “We want to show students that there are places they can go, and guide them through that search,” she said.

Conexión Américas, a Tennessee nonprofit organization that supports Latino families, worked to open the first Tennessee chapter of Escalera at Glencliff because of the especially high rate of immigrant students in South Nashville. Glencliff’s student population includes teenagers who were born all over the world — and an estimated 15 percent are undocumented, according to guidance counselor Ellen Houston.

Debate over educational opportunities for undocumented immigrants has grown as the U.S. population of undocumented immigrants has swelled to an estimated 11.3 million in 2014, according to the Pew Research Center.

In 1982, the Supreme Court decided in Plyler v. Doe that all students, regardless of their immigration status, are guaranteed a K-12 education. But the decision did not extend to higher education.

Tennessee Promise has been a game-changer for many students by helping them even consider college. That’s why Glencliff requires all students to participate in the nine-month process toward getting the scholarship. But when Houston goes into classes to help students sign up, the realities for undocumented immigrants also can crush their morale.

“I’ve found it very difficult,” she said. “I have to say, ‘In order to apply, you have to be a permanent resident or a citizen,’ and some of their faces just drop. … I think it can be heartbreaking.”

" I think it can be heartbreaking."Ellen Houston, guidance counselor

It can be hard for students to stay motivated when their chances are limited and they’re already struggling through language barriers and poverty.

But, Houston says, things have gotten easier in Nashville for motivated undocumented students in the four years since she started working at Glencliff. Trevecca Nazarene University, in particular, has stepped up financial aid for undocumented students.

“I think for the students who are really high-achieving, it really does work out,” she said.

In their free time at Glencliff, students often can be found hanging out and flipping through college books in Houston’s spacious office, called “the Loft.” And like Escalera students, they are often already thinking past college.

“A lot of it is because how we grew up,” said Yesenia, an Escalera student with an eye toward attending Vanderbilt. “We want to pursue a field that can help other people — like doctors.”

Keyli nodded in agreement. “Being a doctor … back home, it was like being president,” she said, adding that she’s more likely to become an educator because the medical field makes her squeamish. “I want to help the younger generation get it,” she said.

Many want to stay in Tennessee, or return after further exploring the United States.

“I’ve lived here since I was 5, and Tennessee is awesome; it’s great,” Keyli said. “I’m Guatemalan. I go to a store that’s Mexican, and the owners are Arabic. It’s all different people.”

Tennessee’s diversity is a key reason the students think supporters of the tuition equality bill should keep trying.

“It would mean a lot to Tennessee,” Daniela said. “It would be an opportunity to show we can be united.”


Chicago’s Acero teachers vote 98% to authorize first-ever charter school strike

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Members of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff protest before an Acero network board meeting in October.

Teachers at 15 Acero schools overwhelmingly voted Tuesday evening to authorize a strike, setting the stage for the first walkout in the nation by teachers at a charter network.

With a 96 percent turnout of the estimated 500 union-represented Acero Teachers, 98 percent of members voted to grant a strike authorization. The teachers union can now announce a strike date if contract negotiations reach an impasse, according to the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (ChiACTS).

Acero, formerly named UNO, is the largest unionized charter-school operator in Chicago Public Schools. Its contract with teachers expired Aug. 2 and was extended until Oct. 3. But talks have been stalled, union officials said.

If teachers do walk out, it could be the country’s first charter school strike, union leaders said.

At issue in the contract negotiations are higher pay, increased diversity among teaching staff in majority Latino schools, smaller class sizes, better special education services and teacher evaluations.

Chicago International Charter Schools teachers will also take a strike authorization vote Friday.

Changing course

Memphis’ only program for adults to get high school diploma gets lifeline from district leaders

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Kennishia Pratts, 19, is on track to graduate from The Excel Center in December. She plans to attend Spelman College, a prestigious historically black women’s college.

Update on Oct. 30, 2018: The Shelby County Schools board approved this contract. 

The only thing that was keeping 19-year-old Kennishia Pratts from a job she really needed was a high school diploma, one potential employer told her.

So Pratts decided she would go back to school. She tried to enroll at a nearby high school, but was ineligible because of her age. That’s when she turned to The Excel Center, a charter school for adults and the only place in Memphis adults can get their high school diploma — not just an equivalent commonly known as a GED.

“When they told me I could get my official high school diploma here, I was ecstatic,” Pratts said. “I’d rather have my high school diploma where I know that I’m for sure going to get into college, I’m for sure going to get this job.”

With two children to support, “I have to make a living out here,” explained Pratts, who is on track to graduate later this year.

But now Excel is slated to close at the end of this academic year because it hasn’t graduated enough students on time and has posted low scores on state standardized tests, called TNReady. By state law, any charter school on the Tennessee Department of Education’s “priority list,” composed of the state’s lowest-performing schools, must close.

That’s why Shelby County Schools is stepping in to help keep Excel’s doors open to serve what Superintendent Dorsey Hopson called a “unique population.” It would no longer be a charter school, but a “contract school,” according to district policy. The state is also supporting the switch because “as an adult high school, the Excel Center does not fit the K-12 charter model,” a state spokeswoman said.

The school board is expected to vote Tuesday on a proposed contract between the district and Goodwill Industries that would set up a different set of expectations for adult learners.

The need for schools like The Excel Center is immense. Adult education programs are scarce in Memphis, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. About 2,000 students drop out of high school every year, according to the city’s main school district. In addition, Memphis has the highest percentage in the nation of young people ages 16 to 24 not in school or working. Without a high school education, it’s that much harder to find a job. Those without a high school diploma are also more likely to end up in jail.

Adult learners come with different challenges than traditional students, school leaders say. They are more likely to need child care while they are in class, have inflexible, low wage jobs, and and need more help with academics because of long gaps in education.

State policy for schools like Excel is lacking, said Candis Dawson, the school’s director. Goodwill operates at least 20 similar schools in five states where there are different standards for measuring success at adult schools. For example, most adult learners missed graduating with their classmates. Since schools qualify for Tennessee’s priority list if the percentage of students graduating on time is below 67 percent, it’s unlikely the center would ever escape the dreaded list. (In 2018, the center’s on-time graduation rate — that is, within four years and a summer of entering 9th grade — was 8.8 percent.)

“It’s not a blame on the district or the state, but we were put in a holding pattern until key players came together to say this model wouldn’t work for us,” Dawson said. Otherwise, “we would automatically continue to fail.”

To address that, the proposed $239,000 contract for no more than 500 students would establish new metrics to gauge success. Students would still take TNReady end-of-course exams like their younger counterparts.

Specifically, the requirements to keep Excel open include:

  • 18 percent of students in an academic year gain their high school diploma
  • 20 percent of graduates within six months are hired for a job that pays more than minimum wage, receive a job certification, such as nursing assistant, or are accepted to attend a community college or four-year university.
  • 59 percent of students complete each eight-week term.

If the school fails for two straight years to meet those amended requirements, should they clear the board, Shelby County Schools could close the school.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
The Excel Center opened in 2015 as a charter school for adults to get their high school diploma.

Currently, the center employs 11 teachers for its 450 students and offers classes from 8:45 a.m. to 6:15 p.m., weekly bus passes, and free child care for children ages six weeks to 12 years. Younger children can also enroll in pre-kindergarten classes at Excel.

“They’re learning the power of education as they see their parents go to class,” said Chuck Molinski, the center’s vice president of education.

The school year is divided into five, eight-week sessions to accelerate students’ completion of credits. If needed, students attend remedial courses before enrolling in credit-bearing classes so they will be able to keep up with the faster pace. Students can enroll for a term, take a break for a term, and then return later, if needed. None of that would change under the new contract arrangement.

The average age of Excel students is 27, with the school serving students as young as 18 and as old as 84. The center also offers life-coaching to help students navigate services, such as housing and job placement. Every student is required to take a class on crafting resumes and cover letters, culminating in a presentation of a portfolio of their work. Job fairs, field trips to area businesses, and workshops on filling out college admissions paperwork is commonplace. Most students are enrolled for three or four terms before earning enough credits for a diploma. If a student has no high school credits coming in, it takes about 18 months attending classes full time to graduate. So far, the three-year-old school has graduated nearly 400 students.

A diploma, rather than a GED, is worth the extra effort, Molinski said.

“On the employer end it shows more of a dedication and devotion… Our students are having to take ACT, TNReady, and the civics exam,” he said. “It shows more dedication than just going on a computer and passing a test.”

Pratts, the Excel student, is now aiming beyond the job she was turned down before going back to school. She’s been admitted to Spelman College in Atlanta, a prestigious historically black women’s college. It’s something she never before thought possible.

“If they close [The Excel Center], a lot of people are going to be devastated because this school has helped a lot of people achieve things they never thought they would,” she said.