Nashville Struggling to Educate Minorities

J’Nisha Towne on how demographics are shaping policy

Rich Boyd, executive director of the Tennessee Arts Commission is supportive of a new initiative called Value Plus in Tennessee, a five-year pilot program focusing on integrating art into curriculum with aims of boosting academic performance in six Title I schools. The stipulation for participation in the program is that each school have more than 50 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch: “Many of our schools struggle with low-test scores, increasing ESL populations, and budget cuts,” stated Boyd. “National data suggests that programs that integrate the arts into basic curriculum help reach and teach children in new and exciting ways.” Boyd concluded.

The new approach could be the added incentive needed to hire teachers with experience in ESL methodology rather than offering waivers to teachers without such skills. The state’s new plan explains that “teachers of any language instruction program for English learners need to be fluent and competent in the following domains: reading, writing, speaking, and listening.” As for personnel hired before requirement of ESL endorsement, they are granted “help” by the state in the form of educational seminars and professional development.

While Spanish remains the most common language spoken in schools, Tennessee is high on the list for budding refugee resettlement programs. Providing learning and comprehension modules for Kurdish, Bosnian, and Nigerian families is proving difficult. Because the state has not specified funding for LEP (Limited English Proficient) or immigrant students, reporting of such students can be lax and delayed.

What the state does offer, though, is a team to provide resources to facilitate local education including a specified curriculum framework for ESL programs. Library resources and other forms of professional development including seminars, conferences, and tutorials provide guidance on maneuvering through the ESL framework of instruction. Government funds ESL textbooks specified for the LEP student and $200,000 is available as relief funds for the Immigrant Grant — funds distributed to qualified school districts which have a noted increase in the number of immigrant students.

These funds have been used for family literacy, parent outreach, teacher aids, tutorials, mentoring, academic or career counseling for immigrant students and families, educational software and technology, community-based organizations, and funds directly related to the provision of school supplies, transportation, and instruction.

The possibilities are evident — the budget and staff are not.

As a freelancer writer and educator, J'Nisha Towne believes in bridging of culture through language, education, and the arts. She can be found scouring flea markets for exotic finds or practicing Bharatanatyam dance.