Speaking Up

George Washington High student shares views on tolerance, inclusion and wearing a head scarf

PHOTO: Colorado Education Initiative
Haneen Badri, a senior at Denver's George Washington High School, during her speech at the Colorado Education Initiative's Healthy Schools Summit.

Haneen Badri, a senior at Denver’s George Washington High School, earned a standing ovation after a poignant speech last week in which she discussed the need for tolerance and inclusiveness in schools and society.

Her parents, who are Sudanese, immigrated to the United States in 1995 with Haneen’s older sister. They first settled in Washington, D.C., where her older brother was born, and later moved to Denver, where Haneen was born.

Haneen, 17, said her parents came to the U.S. because they wanted better educational opportunities for their children.

Haneen is president of the mock trial and pep clubs at school, leads the Colorado Muslim Society’s girls youth group and is a youth representative for an association of Young Sudanese. Next year, she hopes to study pre-law and international relations at Colorado State University, Arizona State University or Washington University in St. Louis.

She spoke with Chalkbeat after her speech at the Colorado Education Initiative’s Healthy Schools Summit. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What decision did you make in seventh grade about how you would dress?

Muslim women, it’s religious that you wear a head scarf and you get to choose when you do that. During seventh grade it just felt right for me.

It was just really odd as soon as I started wearing it, I was a completely different person to everyone. They didn’t see me as Muslim until after I started wearing it. The ignorance, the fear of how I’m different caused some of my relationships to fall apart.

In your speech, you mentioned a startling playground incident that felt like an assault on your dignity. What happened?

During the spring of that year, we had lunch and while we were outside a female peer ripped [my head scarf] off.

Do you know why did she did it?

No. I never really did get a clear answer, but I did get an apology. I did get the chance to educate her about Islam.

What was it like to educate her about Islam?

I guess I was kind of used to it because my parents taught us to be open about who we are. We met up the summer of that year. It was me and my parents and her parents and her. We just sat down and talked and let them ask all the questions that they had and answered them.

How did that incident impact you?

It made me realize that it happens more often and that we don’t really talk about it. Once I started the (Colorado Muslim Society) girls youth group, other girls came forward about, “This has happened to me before and I haven’t been able to talk about it because I thought I was the only one.”

It was kind of eye-opening about how much pressure we put on students not to talk about their personal experiences. And that developed me in a way where I do like talking to groups who are underrepresented or traditionally not accurately portrayed in our classrooms and I do like including them in all lessons and decisions.

What do people assume about you?

Usually, they think I’m angry or that I’m close-minded or I’m biased because of my religion or that I’m intolerant of other people or other races. It’s kind of funny because I’m completely the opposite.

You talked about feeling that inclusiveness is lacking in schools. How so?

The norm in our society is a white, rich male who’s Christian, who’s straight. If you don’t really fit into that norm, you’re an exception. Society tends not to accurately portray you and so it’s in our media, in television, in children’s books, in education.

We spend only two days on African-American history, and only discuss slavery and civil rights, and the rest of the year we discuss the creation of America from Christopher Columbus all the way until now. We don’t discuss Native American history besides the Trail of Tears. Latino history is rarely discussed at all.

It’s just kind of heartbreaking that we do want to promote diversity but we aren’t doing any actions to show that.

In years past, there’s been tension at George Washington because of a sense of separation between students in the International Baccalaureate program and the traditional program. How’s that going?

We’ve started a Safe Zone panel, which is once every semester. We have a panel of students and it’s student-led. Teachers come and ask us questions about how they could make their room more inclusive and how they could integrate students of all backgrounds in their classrooms. It’s a great start, but I think there could be more.

Over the summer, we started the student ambassador program and that was a week-long process at (the University of Denver.) The first two days were just ambassadors—sophomores, juniors and seniors—and the last three days were “Freshman Academy,” where we taught the freshmen that inclusion is the key to succeeding in life and how to interact with students they don’t tend to identify with.

So far, I think it’s going great because yes, the (upper) classes are experiencing difficulties, but the freshman class tends to be more cohesive and understanding of each other. I think that’s the real key to changing George because once we keep on educating each incoming class then the student environment will be able to change.

If you could wave a magic wand and make one change at school, what would it be?

Definitely inclusion because I’ve noticed at George besides the segregation between IB and traditional (tracks), we tend to dismiss the special needs program. That personally angers me because our special needs department is in charge of recycling, they clean up after the school, they manage growing our trees. They’re just really underappreciated and dehumanized and demeaned…I think it’s just a matter of spreading more knowledge about there’s no difference between us and them and there’s no difference between traditional and IB.

How would you say you’ve changed since middle school?

In middle school it was really rough. I wasn’t able to speak up as I do now. It was hard finding my voice, but now—I do tend to shy away, but there’s my subconscious telling me, “No, go for it.”

It’s been great to see myself develop from this shy, timid girl to someone who can speak for herself and speak for others.

academic insurance

Children’s Health Insurance Program is on the brink. Here’s why that matters for education

The fate of the Children’s Health Insurance Program is in Congress’s hands — and children’s education, not just their health, may be at stake.

Congress passed a temporary extension of funding for of CHIP in December, through some states will run out of money shortly. The end of the program would come with obvious potential consequences, as CHIP, which covers approximately 9 million children, gives participants more access to health and dental care.

There may also be a less obvious result: Research has found that access to health insurance helps kids perform better on tests and stay in school longer.

A 2016 study, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Human Resources, found that expanding Medicaid in the 1980s and 1990s increased students’ likelihood of completing high school and college.

“Our results indicate that the long-run benefits of public health insurance are substantial,” the researchers wrote.

Similarly, an earlier paper shows that broadening access to Medicaid or CHIP led to increases in student achievement.

“We find evidence that test scores in reading, but not math, increased for those children affected at birth by the increase in health insurance eligibility,” researchers Phillip Levine and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach wrote.

In short, research suggests that when kids are healthier, they do better in school. That’s in line with common sense, as well as studies showing that children benefit academically when their families have access to direct anti-poverty programs like the earned income tax credit or cash benefits.

(Even if CHIP ends, affected children might still have access to subsidized insurance through the Affordable Care Act or other means. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that will be more costly in the long run.)

Congress appears likely to vote on a bill this week that includes a six-year CHIP extension, as as well as a temporary spending measure to avoid a federal government shutdown.

Business of education

Memphis leaders say diversifying school business contracts will help in the classroom, too

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Winston Gipson confers with his wife and daughter, who help run Gipson Mechanical Contractors, a family-owned business in Memphis for 35 years.

Winston Gipson used to do up to $10 million of work annually for Memphis City Schools. The construction and mechanical contracts were so steady, he recalls, that his minority-owned family business employed up to 200 people at its peak in the early 2000s.

Looking back, Gipson says being able to build schools was key to breaking through in the private sector.

“When we got contracts in the private sector, it’s because we did the projects in the public sector,” said Gipson, who started Gipson Mechanical Contractors with his wife in 1983. “That allowed us to go to the private sector and say ‘Look what we’ve done.’”

But that work has become increasingly scarce over the years for him and many other minorities and women. The program designed to address contract disparities in Memphis City Schools was cut during its 2013 merger with Shelby County Schools.

A recent study found that a third of qualified local companies are owned by white women and people of color, but such businesses were awarded just 15 percent of the contracts for Shelby County Schools in the last five years.

It was even worse for black-owned construction companies, like Gipson’s, which make up more than a third of the local industry but were awarded less than 1 percent of contracts.

The disparity is being spotlighted as the city prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated in Memphis while trying to fight for the rights of minority workers in 1968.

On Jan. 25, Chalkbeat will co-host a panel discussion on how Shelby County Schools, as one of the city’s largest employers, can be an economic driver for women- and black-owned businesses. Called “Show Me The Money: The Education Edition,” the evening event will be held at Freedom Preparatory Academy’s new Whitehaven campus in conjunction with MLK50 Justice Through Journalism and High Ground News.

Community leaders say school-related business contracts are a matter of equity, but also an education strategy. Since poverty is a crucial factor in why many Memphis students fall behind in school, the lack of job opportunities for their parents must be part of the discussion, they say.

The district already is taking steps to improve its record on minority contracting, starting with setting new goals and resurrecting the city district’s hiring program.

Big district, big opportunity

Shelby County Schools is Tennessee’s largest district. With an annual budget of more than $1 billion, it awards $314 million in business contracts.   

An otherwise dismal 1994 study of local government contract spending highlighted Memphis City Schools’ program to increase participation of historically marginalized businesses as one of the county’s most diverse, though some areas were cited as needing improvement. The same study criticized the former county school system, which lacked such a program, for its dearth of contracts with Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBEs).

But when the two districts merged in 2013, the program in Memphis City Schools disappeared.

“We had to cut, cut, cut,” said school board member Teresa Jones. “We were trying to stay alive as a district. We did not focus as we should have.”

Jones, a former school board chairwoman, said it’s time to revisit the things that were working before the merger. “We have to get back,” she said, “to make sure there’s equity, opportunity, access, and an atmosphere that promotes business with Shelby County Schools.”

District and community leaders say the consolidated district has lost its ability to develop relationships with qualified minority-owned businesses.

“There was an infrastructure where African-Americans felt comfortable enough approaching the school system” for work, said Melvin Jones, CEO of Memphis Business Contracting Consortium, a black business advocacy group formed in 2015. “There was trust. During the merger, they dropped the infrastructure.”

Brenda Allen

Without the outreach, “we’re seeing the same vendors,” said Brenda Allen, hired last summer as procurement director for Shelby County Schools after working in Maryland’s Prince George County Public Schools, where she oversaw a diversity contracting program.

“We’re not marketing the district like we should,” she told school board members in November.  

Shelby County Schools is not alone in disproportionately hiring white and male-owned companies for public business. Just 3 percent of all revenue generated in Memphis goes to firms owned by non-white people, even though people of color make up 72 percent of the city’s population, according to a 2016 report by the Mid-South Minority Business Council Continuum.

Not coincidentally, district and community leaders say, Memphis has the highest rate of young adults who aren’t working or in college, and the highest poverty rate among the nation’s major metropolitan areas. About 60 percent of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty and all but three of the district’s schools qualify for federal funding for schools serving high-poverty neighborhoods.

Jozelle Luster Booker, the CEO of the MMBC Continuum, developed an equity contracting program for the city utility company following the 1994 study that was so critical of the city. The program funneled half a billion dollars to minority-owned businesses — an example of how government policies can promote equitable contracting, and grow businesses too.

“When that happens, you could basically change the socioeconomic conditions of that community, which impacts learning,” Booker said. “They’re ready to learn when they come to school.”

Shelby County Schools plans to hire a consulting firm to help develop a procurement outreach program and set diversity goals for its contractors and subcontractors. The program will launch in July, and Allen plans to hire three people to oversee it.

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Bricklayers from TopCat Masonry Contractors LLC work on an apartment complex in downtown Memphis in 2014.

The district also is part of a city-led group that provides a common certification process for businesses seeking contracts with city and county governments, the airport, the transit authority, and Memphis Light Gas & Water. The city’s office of business diversity and compliance also has a list of qualified minority businesses, offers free business development courses, and accepts referrals from other government entities to reduce redundancy.

“As you spend public dollars, you always want those dollars to be spent in your neighborhoods because that money comes back into your economy,” Allen said. “When people have jobs, you should see crime go down. You should see more people wanting to do business in the community if you have a good program.”

Leveling the playing field

In order for it to work, there has to be consistent reports, measures and, most of all,  accountability, according to Janice Banks, CEO of Small Planet Works, who helped the district with its disparity study.

Gipson agrees.

A wall of his second-floor Memphis office is lined with photos of some of his most significant projects during his 35 years of business, including a multimillion-dollar mechanical contract with AutoZone when the Memphis-based car part company moved its headquarters downtown in the early 2000s.

The work was made possible, he said, because of public sector jobs like constructing nine schools under Memphis City Schools. But that work evaporated after the merger. “It’s mostly been Caucasian companies that do the work (now),” he said. “It’d be one thing if you didn’t have anyone qualified to do it.”

Shelby County Schools will have to show commitment, he said, if it wants to level the playing field.

“You have the mechanism in place to make a difference,” he said. “Now do you make a difference with that mechanism or do you just walk around, beat your chest, and say we have a disparity study and let things run the way they’ve been running?”

“If you don’t make it happen, it will not happen,” he said.