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"All One School": Students in Maine Respond to a New America

Editor's Note: Deering High School in Portland, Maine, is a member of Asia Society's International Studies Schools Network, and has a diverse student body that includes many students who came to the United States as refugees. Today, Sarah Shmitt, an educator at Deering, recounts how students at her school have responded to the current U.S. administration's policies and lived up to the school's motto: "All one school."

By guest blogger Sarah Shmitt

Though Maine vies with Vermont for the title of 'whitest state in the country,' Portland is an anomaly. While not formally a sanctuary city, we have long welcomed asylees and refugees as a federal resettlement community, beginning in the 70s with waves of Vietnamese and Cambodians, through the early aughts with Serbs and Croats, and then Sudanese and Somalis. Most recently, Portland has become home to families from Burundi, Rwanda, Angola, and the DRC. Naturally, Portland Schools, both private and public, reflect these demographic shifts. The district is now nearly 50 percent language minority; our Superintendent is a Cuban immigrant.

My school is Deering High School, one of Portland's three public high schools, augmented by three private high schools and a STEM charter school (Portland is the only city in Maine with more than one high school).

We at Deering are committed to teaching our students to be globally competent—to be willing and able to take the perspectives of those who are unlike themselves and to take action to address current issues of local and/or global concern. We are uniquely positioned to succeed at this mission: our school population is 30 percent Muslim and tipping toward a majority first- or second-generation immigrant population. Deering's black/African subgroup has the highest graduation rate in the school (90 percent); the percentage of students of color in our AP classes (we offer thirteen) proportionally reflects the makeup of the school; and our school's student and educator leadership reflects the makeup of the school, as well.

Ten years ago, or even five, this would not have been imaginable anywhere in Maine, and for some, this reality is a threat. As one can imagine, some Mainers feel that the city is under siege as economic, political, and aesthetic forces push Portland to evolve in ways that make it unfamiliar to and unlivable for some. Not surprisingly, last year Portland voted overwhelmingly for Bernie Sanders in the primary and then for Clinton; nevertheless, those who feel sidelined by this city's changes have welcomed Trump's message of American exceptionalism and white power, and they have turned their fears outward, sometimes in violent ways.

The election results provoked a series of actions and reactions that galvanized the student population at Deering. The most positive, public, and consequential of those actions were taken by the students in Kirsten Platt's Human Rights class. A chronicle of their learning journey follows.

November 9, 2016. Deering High School. The day after President Trump's election.

Some immigrant students nervously joke with one another about being deported or are vocal in their anger and disappointment with American "democracy." Assistant Principal Dr. Abdullahi Ahmed—himself an immigrant—is overwhelmed as distraught immigrant students fill his office seeking reassurance and comfort. LGBT students, as well as those who reject the gender binary, weep openly, fearful about the hateful messaging of the new administration. A small group of students, some from generations of poverty in Maine, silently observe their classmates' emotional processing of the election results, politely—and wisely—decline to gloat or argue.

deering you are safe here pic.png Teachers try desperately to balance the need to allow students to talk about their fears and ask questions with the ethical demand to provide an interpretation of the election results that is not flavored by raw emotions. Much to our relief, the principal, Ira Waltz, reassures students that we are still "all one school," and that all students are safe at Deering.

Signs in Somali, Arabic, Portuguese, and French are taped to classroom doors and in the hallways that promise, "You are safe here." Many staff members, sotto voce, discuss concerns about the silent, pro-Trump students: we do not want them to feel marginalized in our efforts to uplift others, but we also do not want to endorse anti-Muslim and racist sentiments that have characterized the new President's campaign.

It is an exhausting day.

January 27, 2017. Casco Bay High School. President Trump announces the first iteration of his travel ban.

On the same day that President Trump announces the so-called Muslim travel ban, four students—from Mexico, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—who attend Portland's Casco Bay High School (CBHS) a mile from Deering, are waiting for the public bus in front of the school when three young white men pass by. One of the young white men tells them to go back to their own countries and says he hopes they all die. Two students waiting with the others defend them and is threatened by the young white man with either a screwdriver or a knife. Passersby successfully chase him off. He is arrested and charged with a hate crime, to which he pleads 'not guilty.'

Two days later, on January 29, Portland Superintendent Xavier Botana, himself an immigrant from Cuba, pens an "Open Letter to the Portland Public Schools Community," in which he states:

"Portland is an amazing city with an overwhelming commitment to progressive ideals....I want to be unequivocal that the Portland Public Schools, as an institution, is committed to those ideals and that we will work tirelessly to ensure that our children are in a safe haven while they are under our care."

1st week of February, 2017. Deering High School. Kirsten Platt's Human Rights Class.

Social studies teacher Kirsten Platt reads the Superintendent's letter to her elective Human Rights class. The class has already explored the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Bill of Rights, so they are well aware of what rights were abrogated by both the assault and the travel ban; they want to respond publicly in a way that will honor the dignity of the Superintendent's letter.

The class debates their options for a week and settles on a rally of support for the CBHS students and for Portland's refugee community (a similar rally is planned at Portland High School in downtown Portland). Deering's Principal, Ira Waltz, meets with the class and agrees to a ten-minute, end-of-day Friday rally in front of the school. Students know that their message has to be positive and hopeful—this is not the time for anger and resentment.

Friday, February 3, 2017. Deering High School

The plan for the rally is shared on the morning announcements by the student body president. For the days prior to the rally, students use their free time making signs. Ten minutes before the school day ends on Friday, hundreds of students and teachers line the street in front of the school with their signs, shouting "Love Trumps Hate!" and "All one school!" The mood is buoyant, energizing, and filled with that ineffable passion that teenagers can bring to bear in even the most troubling circumstances.

student protestors.pngOn the same day, Maine's Republican party announces that it plans to use the Freedom of Access Act to investigate Portland's superintendent for politicizing the Casco Bay assault. The Party's press release cites Deering's Human Rights class for its role in organizing the rally, and claims that both the superintendent's open letter and the Deering rally "promoted a political agenda ... forcing students and teachers to give up taxpayer-funded school time to engage in a partisan agenda promoted by school district officials."

Nothing comes of the Republican party's investigation, but The Crucible and 1984 feel suddenly relevant to the students in ways they previously did not.

Late February 2017. Portland Board of Education.

School Board member Jenna Vendil, angered by the assault on the Casco Bay students and inspired by the work of the Human Rights class, works with Ms. Platt's students to draft three Board resolutions, respectively entitled, "Resolution Affirming Employee Speech Rights;" "Resolution Condemning Violence and Hate Speech, Expressing Support for our Muslim Students and Staff;" and "Resolution Affirming Its Commitment to All Students and Making Portland Public Schools a Safe Haven for Students and Families." The resolutions pass unanimously.

The first resolution reads, in part, "[The Board] recognizes the importance of participation by school employees in public debate over local, state, and national policy ... and encourages school staff to continue speaking out for public school students...."

During the required public comment session preceding Board consideration of the resolutions, parent Jennifer Boggs asserts, "Not only is this what democracy looks like, but this is what fairness and equity look like, and this is what compassion looks like."

March 2017. Portland Board of Education.

Portland's Board of Education and the Superintendent formally recognize the Human Rights class, presenting Ms. Platt and members of her class with a certificate of recognition for their efforts.

Reflections

Looking back on her experience in Ms. Platt's class, sophomore Awo Yassin commented, "We felt really proud of what we accomplished—we were active citizens, not just talking about it." Her classmate, Luke Hill, concurred, noting "The thing I learned that stuck with me the most is that your opinions are more similar [to others'] than one would think. Debates start easily [in class] but then Ms. Platt would say, 'Do you realize you are actually agreeing with one another?' and the whole class would burst out laughing."

For her part, Ms. Platt continues to be committed to empowering her students to be engaged politically and socially to better our world. "It's really a fraught time to have discussions because kids come to class and they have heard at home or on the news statements that express prejudice and that make the classroom unsafe. So for me, I am working really hard to figure out how to have civil discussions in a diverse classroom." That means asking a lot of questions to find common ground, and Ms. Platt works hard to direct the discussion toward finding a value—like security or family—that is shared among everyone in the class.

The impact of Ms. Platt's class on the students who organized and carried out the events described above has been profound. Ms. Platt's focus on a student-led, project-based approach allowed the class to work collaboratively to design and implement appropriate and meaningful responses to national and local issues, fulfilling their mission to investigate the world, communicate ideas, take others' perspectives, and take action. And as a bonus, she took a class of twenty students from almost as many cultures and faith traditions and used a potentially divisive, controversial national issue to ensure that Deering is indeed "all one school."

Connect with Deering High School and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

The top photograph was taken by the author, second image by Rhonda Farnham. Both images used with permission of the photographer.

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