Three young cattle have been on the loose in Dryden for over a week

Three young cattle have been on the loose in Dryden for over a week

DRYDEN, N.Y.—Three feeder cattle — or weaned calves — are loose in the normally quiet rural town of Dryden. News of the bovines’ escape has caused some slight disruptions at nearby Dryden Elementary School.

The calves have been at large for over a week. They escaped from the Empire Livestock Marketing auction house in the Village of Dryden on Nov. 20 at about 4:20 p.m., according to auction house owner Heidi Nicholas.

Nicholas said that four calves escaped while they were being delivered and unloaded into the auction house, one of which has since been captured.

“The farmer that brought them in with a trucker [had] actually opened the gate and didn’t realize that his trucker had pulled away from the dock,” Nicholas said.

Nicholas said auction house employees are “not turning a blind eye” to the situation and have been working through Thanksgiving and the weekend to capture the loose cattle. She said two have black coats, and one is tan and belted.

Nicholas said Empire Livestock Marketing is working with the Village of Dryden police to track down the rogue calves. Unfortunately, there are few leads to go off of at the moment.

“We have no idea where they are,” Village of Dryden Police Department Chief Josh Tagliavento said Tuesday. Although, he’s “pretty sure” the calves are no longer in the Village of Dryden.

“We believe that they’re not in the village because I’m pretty sure if there were three cows walking around, we probably would have gotten the call,” Tagliavento said.

The calves were reportedly last seen in front of the Dryden Fire House Monday evening, where an attempt to lure them into captivity with a bucket of sweet feed failed.

The news of cattle on the loose in Dryden was spread by the Dryden Central School District (DSCD) in an announcement on Instagram Tuesday, but the school district said that the three young cattle on the loose were wild bulls that would charge if approached.

“The bulls should not be approached,” DSCD said in its announcement. “Leave your red cape at home.”

Empire Livestock Marketing’s auction house is just a short walk away from Dryden Elementary School, and DCSD moved to bring recess indoors “out of an abundance of caution.”

However, it appears that officials in the school district misunderstood the situation. Nicholas said the cattle her employees and her are tracking down are not bulls, but weaned calves, and are likely about 18 months old and just between 600 pounds and 800 pounds.

“When you say a bull, probably the general public would think, ‘Oh, my God, there’s a 2000-pound bull running around the neighborhood,’” Nicholas said. “No, that’s not the case.”

DCSD officials were not available to comment ahead of publication, but DCSD updated its statement Tuesday after being contacted by the Village of Dryden Police Department and Empire Livestock Marketing.

“Apparently, the bovine that escaped were incorrectly identified as bulls and are in fact feeder cows,” the update said.

DSCD said it intends to keep activities at Dryden Elementary indoors for the remainder of Tuesday, “but most likely will resume normal activities tomorrow, while just keeping an eye out for the three ‘musketeers.’”

Nicholas described the young cattle as skittish.

“They’re more afraid of you than you would be of them,” Nicholas said.“[But] certainly, everyone should be cautious.”

Nicholas encouraged anyone who catches sight of the calves to contact her directly. The Village of Dryden Police Department is also seeking information.

Heidi Nicholas, owner of Empire Livestock Marketing: 315-985-5110

Village of Dryden Police Department non-emergency number: 607-844-8118

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Cornell heightens security after threats against campus Jewish community

Update (Oct. 30, 1:20 p.m.): New York Governor Kathy Hochul visited Cornell’s campus Monday morning in the wake of the threats posted online against Jewish students. Hochul’s visit was announced last-minute before she arrived on campus.

She appeared with a crowd of Cornell students, law enforcement personnel and Cornell University President Martha Pollack.

“No one should be afraid to walk from their dorm or their dining hall to a classroom. That is a basic right that every New Yorker has outside of campus, but particularly on a campus because these are young people who are in an environment that is intended to protect them as well, and their parents need to know this,” Hochul said.

Hochul said the New York State Police and FBI have been notified to assist with the investigation into the threats.

“This community will start to heal. It’s been horribly painful,” Hochul said. “They will come together because the terrorists, the people who are threatening them will get no refuge here. They will find that this community is made stronger and defiant and will resist any sense that they’ll change their way of life because they’ve been threatened by people with such hate in their hearts.”

Other entities have also published condemnations of the threats, including the Cornell Coalition for Mutual Liberation and the Tompkins County government.

Original story (Oct. 30, 5 a.m.):

ITHACA, N.Y.—Cornell University is heightening security on campus after threats were made online against the school’s Jewish community.

Cornell police and President Martha Pollack both acknowledged the threats, which were posted to the GreekRanks forum online. At least one of the threatening posts, titled “if i see another jew” [sic], is still visible as of early Monday morning and contains graphic threats against Jewish students.

Another post, which has apparently been removed, threatened to “shoot up” 104West!, a building on campus with a kosher dining hall and adjacent to the Center for Jewish Living. Others that have been removed contained similar sentiments and violent threats.

It’s unclear who was behind the threats or if they were made by anyone affiliated with the university. The posts were made under various pseudonyms, including the username “hamas,” referring to the group responsible for the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel that have led to an ongoing offensive by Israeli military forces against Palestinians in Gaza. In the aftermath, thousands of people have been killed or injured during the war over the last three weeks.

Police said they are investigating, but did not disclose details of who they believe to be responsible.

“The Cornell University Police Department is investigating posts located on a website that contain threats of violence directed at religious groups across the campus,” according to a Facebook announcement from Cornell police. “Evidence suggests the targeted locations were intentionally selected because of the perpetrator’s bias. The investigation is continuing.”

Additional security was stationed outside of 104West! on Sunday in response to the threats.

Pollack condemned the threats in a statement released Sunday. She also noted that the FBI had been notified of the threats to investigate the matter as a “potential hate crime.”

“Threats of violence are absolutely intolerable, and we will work to ensure that the person or people who posted them are punished to the full extent of the law,” Pollack said. “The virulence and destructiveness of antisemitism is real and deeply impacting our Jewish students, faculty and staff, as well as the entire Cornell community. This incident highlights the need to combat the forces that are dividing us and driving us toward hate.”

During the day Sunday, Cornell’s Hillel chapter encouraged students to avoid 104West! out of an abundance of caution after the threats. Pollack had previously announced there would be increased police presence on campus earlier in October.

The threats come during a tumultuous month on campus. Several rallies have been held throughout the month on Cornell’s campus, supporting both Palestinians and Israelis, though all have been peaceful.

There have been several reports of graffiti that is critical of the Israeli government on campus, and Prof. Russell Rickford is on leave after comments he made about the conflict at a rally on the Ithaca Commons sparked outrage and drew a rebuke from Cornell administration.

“In the days ahead, we will work to reinforce a culture of trust, respect and safety at Cornell,” Pollack wrote Sunday. “Regardless of your beliefs, backgrounds or perspectives, I urge all of you to come together with the empathy and support for each other that we so greatly need in this difficult time.”

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A tell-tale tragedy

By the time the sun came up over the rolling green hills of Harrells, North Carolina, on June 23, 2021, a charred metal platform was all that remained of the old trailer. An investigation by the local fire department determined that the fire started at the electric stove in the kitchen. From there, it climbed the cabinets, spread to the living room, and tore through the two bedrooms. Within 30 minutes, the entire structure had been consumed by flames. A photo taken of the aftermath showed a pile of blackened debris, the charred coils of a mattress the only thing that suggested people lived there.

Parked beneath a thicket of tall trees and surrounded by miles of farmland, the trailer was where two cousins, Vicente Gomez Hernandez and Humberto Feliciano Gomez, were meant to spend the summer of 2021. They had traveled there from their Mixteco Indigenous community in San Juan Mixtepec, a rural town in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. Now they’d be returning in body bags.

Gomez and Feliciano were two of the hundreds of thousands of temporary agricultural workers who come to the U.S. each year through the H-2A visa program. It’s the federal government’s most important farm-labor pipeline — and it gets bigger every year. Yet for many visa recipients, the promise of steady work and decent pay quickly devolves into a nightmare of labor trafficking, wage theft, and unsafe living conditions that can lead to injury or even death.

Federal law spells out numerous protections for H-2A workers. They are to be reimbursed by their employer for the cost of their travel, for instance, and be provided free and safe housing as well as a competitive hourly wage.

The charred remains of the trailer on the morning after the fire. Photo by Sampson County Fire Marshal’s office.

But too often these laws are poorly enforced at both the state and federal levels. That lack of oversight creates opportunities for workers to be exploited, cheated, and abused.

Once workers arrive at their destination in the U.S., they’re at the mercy of a patchwork of enforcement that varies greatly depending on the resources available in a given state. For instance, previous reporting by Investigate Midwest found that in Missouri a lack of funding led to a lax inspection process that was easily abused and led to H-2A workers living in deplorable conditions.

Should workers find themselves at the hands of an abusive employer they have few options. They are not allowed to seek employment elsewhere because their visa is tied to their original employer. If they leave that position, they forfeit their visa and risk deportation. If they report abuse, they can face retaliation and be blackballed by both H-2A recruiters and employers, making it difficult to ever return to work legally in the U.S.

“H-2A workers, by the very nature of the program, don’t have any control over their work environment,” said Joan Flocks, an emeritus law professor at the University of Florida who specializes in agricultural labor.

For these reasons, experts say, most abuse in the H-2A program goes unreported, as too often workers are forced to choose between fair treatment and financial opportunity.

In September, the Department of Labor announced a set of proposed rules designed to strengthen protections for H-2A workers. These include making the recruitment process more transparent and giving workers options to advocate for better conditions, like working with unions. The rules are open to public comment until November, and while worker’s rights advocates, including United Farm Workers, support them, it remains to be seen how effective they will be.

The H-2A visa is supposed to be a safe alternative to crossing the border illegally — a win for both farmworkers and farmers. With the visa, Gomez and Feliciano expected to earn $13.15 an hour picking sweet potatoes and blueberries — a fruit they’d never tasted before coming to the United States.

Instead, the men were exploited from the start. When they began working they were in debt, living in a squalid trailer, and were never paid the full wages they’d come all that way for. Then they died in a fire, the exact cause of which remains unclear.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number of H-2A workers has grown steadily over the past decade. In 2022, some 300,000 came to the U.S., up 15 percent from the year before and more than triple the number of workers in 2012.

H-2A workers spend several months clearing fields, planting crops, and harvesting fruits and vegetables, often in exchange for wages that would be inconceivable in their home country. More than 90 percent come from Mexico, and without them much of the United States’ home-grown produce would not make it to the grocery store.

Yet problems like those that Gomez and Feliciano encountered have plagued the H-2A program since its creation, in 1986.

Cases of abuse and exploitation are well documented across the country. Examples from just this year include a 28-year-old man in Florida who died of heat exposure after employers failed to provide him with adequate water and rest. In Utah, the president of the local Farm Bureau was caught physically assaulting one of his H-2A workers and is now under investigation for human trafficking. And in California, workers had their visas recalled after speaking out about unsafe conditions. While these stories rarely make headlines, in 2021 a federal investigation, Operation Blooming Onion, brought the issue to the nation’s attention. The multiyear probe uncovered a transnational human trafficking operation, headquartered in Georgia, that forced more than 100 H-2A workers to endure deplorable living conditions and what investigators called “modern day slavery.”

From 2018 to 2020, a hotline run by the Polaris Project, a nonprofit that fights human trafficking, identified 2,841 H-2A workers who had been subjected to labor trafficking. Over half of these workers reported being threatened with deportation after demanding decent living conditions or the wages they were owed. Others alleged that their employers withheld or destroyed their immigration documents as a means of control. In addition, nearly a quarter of the workers said the debt they incurred in order to get their H-2A visa, including invalid recruitment fees, was used to coerce them into working against their will.

Yet experts say that these cases don’t capture the full scope of the problems with H-2A, in part because workers are reluctant to report abuse but also because the agencies responsible for preventing abuse are underfunded and understaffed.

According to research by the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit think tank, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, which is supposed to investigate reports of abuse in H-2A, has seen little increase in funding since 2006. In the ensuing years the number of H-2A workers has increased more than 500 percent.

As a result, the odds that an H-2A farm will be inspected are less than 1 percent, which can lead to a low level of compliance with labor laws, said Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the Economic Policy Institute and the author of the report. “Farms can pretty much do whatever they want and there’s a very low likelihood they’ll ever be investigated,” he said.

In a written response, a spokesperson from the Department of Labor said the agency makes “strategic use of the funds appropriated by Congress,” and that it “regularly carr[ies] out thorough investigations of employers and farm labor contractors.”

When it comes to housing, the H-2A program also has strict regulations in place, but the reality is that those rules are often poorly enforced by the state agencies that oversee them.

In North Carolina, for instance, there were just eight compliance officers in 2022 responsible for the pre-occupancy inspections of 2,061 farmworker housing sites, according to the North Carolina Department of Labor (NCDOL). Each officer was responsible for 257 sites. That’s in addition to their other duties, which include enforcing a host of federal farming regulations and running training sessions across the state.

In an email, NCDOL acknowledged the rapid expansion of the H-2A program in the state and said it had received funding this year for two additional inspectors: “As more agricultural employers rely on the H-2A program to meet their workforce needs, NCDOL ASH [Agriculture Safety and Health Bureau] expects the number of registered migrant housing sites to increase as well. We are grateful for the additional two positions given to us by the N.C. General Assembly in the last budget and of course, we would always welcome more inspectors to help the department meet its obligations.”

“Farms can pretty much do whatever they want and there’s a very low likelihood they’ll ever be investigated.”

Daniel Costa, Economic Policy Institute

At the trailer where Gomez and Feliciano lived, the NCDOL inspector found no deficiencies in a pre-occupancy inspection. Investigate Midwest reviewed a copy of the report, which was completed on Feb. 24, 2021, just months before the fire. It included no details about the condition of the trailer; a single box was checked stating that it met all federal standards. (According to its annual report that year, 51.9 percent of housing inspected by the NCDOL were found to have no violations.)

But a worker interviewed by Investigate Midwest, who spent the previous summer in the trailer where Gomez and Feliciano died, described it as barely livable.

The worker, whose identity we are protecting because he fears reprisal, said the floor was full of holes and the water and electricity would often go out. Washing clothes and dishes took place out behind the trailer, he said, with a plastic bucket and water spigot. According to the worker there was no air conditioning or fans and the windows were covered with plywood. He said the trailer was infested with cockroaches and at night, as the workers lay on bare mattresses on the floor, the scurry of mice was loud enough to keep them awake.

Once workers are living in H-2A housing, a state inspector may return to make sure the housing is being properly maintained. However, follow-up inspections during the growing season are rare.

According to NCDOL’s 2022 annual report, only 16 of the state’s 2,052 permitted sites – just 0.7 percent – were randomly inspected once workers were living there.

Thomas Arcury is a public health scientist at Wake Forest University who has spent close to 30 years researching issues pertaining to farmworkers in the state. As part of his research, Arcury inspected many housing sites while workers were living there in the 2010s. He found that 41 percent of housing he inspected did not meet state safety standards due to everything from rodent infestations and broken appliances to having more occupants than the permit allows.

“Even if it passes inspection,” he said in an interview, “you wouldn’t want to live there. If you want my impression, farmworker housing is dangerous.”

It was only in the last 15 years that word of the visa program arrived in San Juan Mixtepec. Before that, a chance to work in the U.S. meant paying thousands of dollars to a smuggler and then risking your life to cross the border illegally. It was a path that many, mostly young men, chose as a means to escape the extreme poverty that plagues Oaxaca.

In 2019, Gomez learned about the visa through another cousin, Valentino Lopez Gomez, who worked as an H-2A recruiter and labor contractor. While U.S. farms will often hire H-2A workers directly through recruiters, increasingly they work through labor contractors, like Lopez, who function as the official employer. Worker advocates say this provides farm owners plausible deniability if things go wrong. Lopez, who was certified by the U.S. Department of Labor, hired men and women from San Juan Mixtepec and brought them to North Carolina where he contracted them out to local farms.

The shelter where Feliciano lived in San Juan Mixtepec. He hoped to use money he earned in the U.S. to rebuild it for the family he was eager to start. Photo by Esther Honig.

Gomez was 39, with a wife and two kids, and he needed to earn more money. Surviving in San Juan Mixtepec was becoming ever harder. Drought was killing the crops that had supported the community for millennia. He told Feliciano, who was in his early 30s and eager to start a family, about the opportunity. Initially, Feliciano didn’t want to go. He was scared to travel so far away. But Gomez reasoned that the visa was safe and that Lopez was family. Surely they could trust him to look out for them in America.

In 2020, the two men joined 38 other workers from their village who had been recruited by Lopez to harvest blueberries on Ronnie Carter Farms and Hannah Forest Blueberry farms in North Carolina. Gomez and Feliciano lived that summer in the same trailer where tragedy struck the following year, along with the worker who described the trailer’s decrepit conditions to Investigate Midwest. Not much is known about the cousins’ experience on that first trip. But family members said that they earned barely enough to cover the debts they incurred to get there.

In October 2022, 13 of the workers Lopez recruited that year filed a civil complaint in federal district court for the Eastern District of North Carolina alleging that Lopez charged workers recruitment fees that were between $1,200 to $5,245. Again, under Labor Department rules, these fees are prohibited. Many of the fees were paid with high-interest loans, meaning the workers started the harvest season in debt.

Once the workers arrived in North Carolina, according to the complaint, Lopez confiscated their passports. This is how he allegedly coerced the workers; if they didn’t do as he said, he’d call immigration enforcement. The workers claim he refused to reimburse them for the cost of travel from Mexico, as is required by DOL rules. He also allegedly pocketed some or all of their wages. In one instance, the complaint claims, Lopez tried to extort a female worker for sexual favors.

“Year after year we hear the same gruesome set of facts from farmworkers that are recruited to work on North Carolina farms and our docket of federal trafficking cases reflects that.”

Caitlin Ryland, Legal Aid of North Carolina

The case is pending, but if Lopez is found liable the workers may eventually be eligible to receive special visas that would allow them to remain in the U.S. permanently.

Neither Lopez nor his lawyer responded to multiple requests, via email and phone, for comment.

Caitlin Ryland, who represents the workers in the case, has spent the last 15 years at Legal Aid of North Carolina, a nonprofit that offers pro bono legal services. In that time she’s seen H-2A workers increasingly become targets of criminal behavior, including debt bondage, fraud, and human trafficking.

“Year after year we hear the same gruesome set of facts from farmworkers that are recruited to work on North Carolina farms and our docket of federal trafficking cases reflects that,” Ryland wrote in an email to Investigate Midwest.

Gomez and Feliciano were not plaintiffs in the civil complaint, but according to Ryland they were among the workers from 2020 whom the federal Department of Labor had identified as being owed either wages or travel costs that Lopez never paid or reimbursed.

Nevertheless, the two men decided to return the following year. According to interviews with their families, going to North Carolina was still the best option they had. This time, the families said, the cousins each needed around $2,000 up front for Lopez’s recruitment fee and for travel costs. In a town where most people earn around $12 a day, this was a small fortune. The cousins borrowed money from several community members at 5 percent interest. It was a gamble, but if everything went as planned they could pay off the debt and still bring home around $3,000 each.

The cousins’ experience is fairly common in the H-2A system. In 2019, Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM), an international workers rights organization, interviewed 100 H-2A workers about their experience in the program. More than a quarter said they had paid a recruitment fee. Abigail Kerfoot, an attorney with CDM, said the real number is likely much higher, and that this abuse is so pervasive in part because U.S. authorities are unable to police this activity because it takes place in a foreign country.

“Obviously, there’s a country-to-country relationship with Mexico that the United States has to take into account,” she said.

In a written response, a Department of Labor spokesperson said that while the agency can fine and debar labor recruiters caught charging illegal fees, “the division has no enforcement authority over entities located outside of the U.S. and its territories.”

On a Tuesday afternoon in late June 2021, Gomez and Feliciano got back to their trailer after a long day spent digging sweet potatoes. A third worker, Luis Rojas, was staying with the cousins at the trailer. Rojas slept in the living room, while the cousins each had a bedroom. According to a statement Rojas gave to the county fire marshal, the men marked the end of the day with three beers each. Then, as they often did, they called their families over WhatsApp.

Around 8 p.m., the men made a dinner of fried fish and, according to Rojas, they each had two more beers before going to bed.

At about 1:30 a.m, according to his statement, Rojas awoke feeling an intense heat on his face. The trailer was filling with smoke, and he saw that the kitchen was on fire. He ran to the back door of the trailer, but it wouldn’t open. As Rojas struggled with the handle, he said he heard Feliciano shouting and saw him go to the bedroom where Gomez slept. Then the door swung open and Rojas stumbled into the night air. He ran across the street to a house where other workers lived to get help.

What happened that night has been pieced together from the Sampson County Fire Marshal’s Fire Origin and Cause Report, Rojas’ account, and several statements from other workers who witnessed the fire. It isn’t clear whether Feliciano went to bed or stayed up, but at some point he apparently decided to make something else to eat. He turned on the electric stove, which had only two working burners. According to the report, the fire “most likely” originated in the front right burner. The investigator said two possible causes of the fire that he could not rule out were “failure of a component of the stove” and “occupant negligence.” So it’s possible that Feliciano accidentally started a grease fire that quickly spread out of control. Or it could have been the stove that was faulty and sparked the first flame.

We know that Feliciano caught fire, and investigators suggested he might have run to the bathtub to try to extinguish his burning clothes. There is nothing in the report about whether the trailer had running water that night. All the while, Gomez apparently remained asleep in his room. The pre-occupancy inspection, carried out just months before, doesn’t note whether the smoke detectors were tested, but Rojas said he doesn’t remember hearing them. When Investigate Midwest asked to speak with the inspector for clarification, the request was denied.

Both the deputy and chief fire marshals also declined Investigate Midwest’s request to interview them about the case.

At 1:35 a.m. a worker living in a house next to the trailer ran to alert Lucas Carter, who lived nearby. Carter, who owned the trailer and was listed as the farm’s president in its annual report, called the fire department. Carter did not respond to three phone calls seeking comment.

“When this happens, the recruiters extort them, and in the worst scenarios they are blackmailed and threatened, even though the companies in the U.S. already pay the recruiters for each person they bring in.”

Rey Martinez Lopez

Other workers attempted to rescue Feliciano and Gomez but were repelled by the heat and flames. Mobile homes, especially older ones, are made of lightweight synthetic materials and burn quickly. Their narrow layout can trap people inside. The workers pulled off a section of the trailer’s siding, creating an opening into Gomez’s bedroom. He was unconscious, so the men dragged him out on his mattress. Thirty minutes after the fire began, paramedics and firefighters arrived but were unable to resuscitate Gomez. Feliciano was found dead in the bathroom.

In their report, investigators speculate that Feliciano likely started the fire as a result of being intoxicated. The county medical examiner determined that Feliciano had a blood-alcohol level of 0.3 percent, or nearly three times the legal limit in North Carolina, suggesting he was “acutely intoxicated.” Gomez’s blood-alcohol level was around half that.

The scenario outlined by investigators is certainly plausible, but there are reasons to think that the trailer’s condition could have played a role in what happened that night — not least of which are the well-documented problems with H-2A housing around the country. In this case, investigators were unable to rule out the possibility that the broken stove started the fire. And the condition of the trailer, as described by the worker who lived there with Gomez and Feliciano the previous summer, differs significantly from what is suggested by the pre-occupancy inspection report approved by NCDL which found no violations. Rojas, too, in his witness statement, described the trailer as “disgusting,” said they had gone a week without hot water, and that he had never been told how to use the fire extinguisher or given any instruction on what to do in case of a fire or other emergency. Finally, while the NCDL inspection cited no problem with the trailer’s smoke detectors, Lucas Carter, the owner of the trailer, told the fire marshal’s office that he could not confirm that it had working smoke detectors on the night of the fire.

Members of Feliciano’s family, who asked to remain anonymous, on a bench in San Juan Mixtepec. They have to pay off the $11,000 in debt that Feliciano incurred to go work in the U.S. Photo by Esther Honig.

According to the workers’ families in Oaxaca, neither Lopez nor Lucas Carter called them after the fire. It was another worker, also from San Juan Mixtepec, who called a member of Gomez’s family to tell him the news. The disaster was so far away and so abstract that for weeks many family members didn’t believe it had actually happened. They would anxiously check their phones, hoping for a WhatsApp message from one of the men to clear up what must have been a misunderstanding. But a month later, when their bodies arrived home, everyone was forced to accept the new reality.

In San Juan Mixtepec it’s customary to pray over the body of the deceased for eight days while the family receives mourners. Each day, some 200 people came to pay their respects to Feliciano, and the family poured sodas and served menudo and sweet breads. Similarly, Gomez’s family mourned his passing by hosting loved ones and praying over his remains.

At the end of eight days, Feliciano was buried, and the family could finally find some closure. But now, in addition to the cost of funeral services, they had to contend with Feliciano’s debt, which was around $11,000.

Feliciano’s family borrowed money, interest-free, from relatives in the U.S. to pay back what he had borrowed from neighbors. Now Feliciano’s father is working on other farms to pay back the family, leaving his own crops and animals unattended.

Each year, as many as 250 people are recruited from San Juan Mixtepec for H-2A visas. Like Lopez, the recruiters are locals, and they charge their neighbors anywhere from $1,000 to more than $5,000 for visa applications that are supposed to be free. The town’s leaders agree that the H-2A program provides much needed economic opportunity, but they’ve grown concerned about abuse.

According to Rey Martinez Lopez, who spoke as a representative of the San Juan Mixtepec community, many workers will return from a season in the U.S. without having earned enough money to repay the recruitment fee. “When this happens, the recruiters extort them, and in the worst scenarios they are blackmailed and threatened, even though the companies in the U.S. already pay the recruiters for each person they bring in,” he said.

The home of labor recruiter Valentino Lopez sits atop a hill in San Juan Mixtepec. Photo by Esther Honig.

Martinez says that none of the families of workers who die while working on H-2A visas is compensated by the U.S. government or by the farms that hired them. He believes the workers should receive life insurance so that their families will be taken care of financially. More importantly, Martinez said, he wants the U.S. government to investigate and punish corrupt recruiters.

In December 2022, the U.S. Department of Labor debarred Lopez from working as an H-2A foreign labor contractor for three years after an investigation determined that he “confiscated workers’ passports … failed to pay weeks of wages to more than a dozen workers, did not pay the inbound and outbound transportation expenses for workers, and charged workers fees between $150 and $8,000 to participate in the federal program” during the 2020 and 2021 growing seasons. It also fined him $62,531 in civil penalties. The investigation also led to the recovery of $58,039 in wages owed to 72 workers. His debarment will last until 2025, at which point he could be allowed to resume his work as a labor contractor.

In San Juan Mixtepec, meanwhile, where most homes have dirt floors and no indoor plumbing, Lopez’s house sits prominently on the side of a hill. The two-story structure, built of cement and white stucco, is surrounded by a tall cinder block wall with an imposing iron gate. People in the community said it’s been years since Lopez has visited. In his absence, the house is a reminder for community members and neighbors of dreams that ended in misery.

This article was produced in collaboration with Investigate Midwest. It may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact

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Local quiltmakers combine to supply new detox center with a homemade quilt for each bed

ITHACA, N.Y.—A months-long effort to organize and sew dozens of quilts for those in need culminated Tuesday, as 63 quilts were presented to a room full of quiltmakers and onlookers. The quilts are being sent to the Alcohol and Drug Council’s new Open Access Detox and Stabilization Center, and will be placed on each bed in the facility for people undergoing treatment.

The sentiment of covering every bed in the new facility “with the warmth and beauty of a quilt created with love and care by a community member” fueled the quilters, organized by members of the Community Quiltmaking Center. The effort was coined “40 Quilts for 40 Beds” and was led by Brigid Hubberman with materials donated by Peggy Dunlop, one of the founders of the Community Quiltmaking Center.

The quilts were presented during an event at Kendal at Ithaca Tuesday evening celebrating the quiltmakers and officially dedicating the quilts to the center. In total, there were 63 quilts displayed, made by 65 quiltmakers, most of whom are local (and listed at the bottom of this article). While the initial goal was 40 quilts to cover the 40 beds in the detox center, the community’s enthusiasm produced far more than was anticipated.

Tuesday night’s event featured the parading of each of the quilts across a stage to applause, with some of the quiltmakers coming to the front and addressing the audience about their inspiration, the design and materials, or simply waxing poetic about their love of quilting.

A pile of quilts while will be sent to the Open Access Detox and Stabilization Center. Credit: Matt Butler / The Ithaca Voice

State Assemblymember Anna Kelles, Tompkins County Deputy Commissioner of Mental Health Services Harmony Ayers-Friedlander and the Alcohol and Drug Council’s director of marketing and development, Emily Parker, were among several speakers who commended the effort and emphasized the importance of supporting people struggling with addiction.

“I can’t imagine a more beautiful symbol of connection than these gorgeous quilts, made by giant-hearted, generous, caring women,” Parker said. The detox and stabilization center has struggled to fill out its workforce as it ramped up to launch earlier this year, but is currently partially open for patients.

Credit: Matt Butler / The Ithaca Voice

Ayers-Friedlander added that the quilts would help those struggling with addiction to know “your community sees you as a person,” in line with the event’s overall goal of reducing stigma around addiction and seeking treatment.

Others shared emotional and personal stories about their connections to addiction. One woman named Dorothy stitched a quilt depicting the sun at dawn, which she said represented her brother’s 30 years of sobriety. The quilt is currently hanging in the Tompkins County Center for History and Culture.

Ithaca Youth Bureau Executive Director Liz Klohmann had a particularly close connection to two of the quilts. In front of the audience, Klohmann disclosed that her son died from a fentanyl overdose in 2022. Before his death, her son had gathered a sizable amount of thread for a creative endeavor but died before he was able to put it to use. Instead, Klohmann said the thread had been used in two of the quilts that were presented Tuesday.

One of the quilts that used thread from Liz Klohmann’s son, Dylan. Credit: Anna Kelles

Quilters of all skill levels volunteered to put their stitching talents to work, including Pat Costantini. Like most others who assisted in the effort, Costantini has relatives who were impacted by substance use issues.

But Costantini said her passion for quilting was enough to get her involved.

“I love to quilt, it’s my therapy,” Costantini said. “I’m happy to be part of it, to be able to contribute.”

She has been involved in similar efforts before, and has donated some of her work to the Quilts for Valor Foundation, a non-profit that donates quilts and blankets to veterans. Her daughter-in-law organized an effort to make Christmas stockings for troops overseas when Costantini’s son was stationed in Afghanistan during the holidays, in which Costantini also participated.

Nora Burrows, another quilter, was looking for an outlet for her love of quilting, which like Costantini, pushed her to get involved. She said her quilt took months to finish, but she “loves every second of it.”

“The idea of being comforted and being in an environment that may be scary and wanting to feel some sense of calm,” Burrows said. “Quilts are, traditionally, that feeling of calm. I wanted to be a part of that.”

The below pictures were provided by NYS Assemblymember Anna Kelles.

Leisa Morris White moved to the area from Australia and said quilting had been a central way for her to make new friends in her new surroundings.

“My favorite thing to make is a community quilt,” White said. “When people join together and make things happen, it’s amazing. It brings people together and you get to know people, you really bond and make friends.”

She continued that she hopes the quilts are useful for decades to come as a source of warmth and comfort.

“I just hope [the quilt] lasts longer than me,” White said. “If when I’m gone someday, someone else is wrapped up in it, that would make me very happy.”

The post Local quiltmakers combine to supply new detox center with a homemade quilt for each bed appeared first on The Ithaca Voice.

Alone on the Range

In September 2016, with Tropical Storm Hermine bearing down on North Carolina, Kemp Burdette rented a single-engine plane and flew over Duplin County. Burdette, a riverkeeper with the environmental group Cape Fear River Watch, was worried that some of the local pig farmers might try to drain their manure lagoons before the rains hit, to prevent them from overflowing. Spraying waste is illegal right before storms because of the risk that runoff from saturated fields will contaminate waterways.

As he flew, Burdette estimated that he saw at least 35 farms spraying their fields. He took high-resolution, GPS-stamped photographs and videos documenting the apparent violations, and then filed a complaint with the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), hoping the iron-clad evidence would move the agency to act. He and his colleagues did the same a month later, just before devastating Hurricane Matthew. “This isn’t just one bad actor,” he said. “This was widespread—complete disregard for the rules.”

But, according to Burdette, DEQ told him that the GPS-stamped images were inadequate proof. “They were basically saying, ‘There’s nothing we can do,’” he says. “They can’t stand behind evidence collected by somebody else.” Nor did they have funds to make their own aerial surveys. For evidence, DEQ said it could only review the farms’ self-reported spray logs. And in November 2016, when Burdette and his colleagues followed up, they say, all public traces of their complaints had disappeared.

For years, North Carolina regulators shielded the identities of polluting farms, burying public complaints against them and leaving those who lived nearby with few avenues for redress. Neighbors said their complaints were going unheard. 

A joint investigation by The Guardian, Food & Environment Reporting Network, and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting backs up those residents’ assessments. In response to a public-records request, DEQ released only 33 public complaints against livestock operations in North Carolina from January 2008 to April 2018. Over the same period, other hog states have registered literally thousands.

And then, abruptly, the DEQ reversed that policy this spring, saying it had validated 62 complaints against animal operations over a six-month period and then posting them online. The offenders included 11 industrial hog farms, some of which had let their waste discharge into ditches and streams. The change of policy meant that state regulators had publicly documented nearly twice as many violations in the six months ending April 2019 than in an entire decade. What happened?


Interview on WNCU-Durham’s The Dirt with writer Barry Yeoman and FERN editor-in-chief Sam Fromartz.

The Bob Ivey Facility, located along the Neuse river in North Carolina. The waste lagoon is under water to the right of the buildings. Photo by Rick Dove, image courtesy of Cape Fear River Watch and Waterkeeper Alliance.

Raising hogs in North Carolina used to be a side gig to the real business of growing tobacco and cotton. Then, in the 1980s and ’90s, the industry exploded, with concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) on the state’s coastal plain housing up to 60,000 animals apiece. Most of the state’s 9 million pigs live indoors, their waste flushed through slats into open pits called lagoons. When the lagoons get too full, the waste is sprayed onto crop fields as fertilizer, though these manure pits have also overflowed and breached their walls, particularly during hurricanes, sending waste into streams and rivers.

As the industry grew, the state legislature protected it in numerous ways, even barring counties from zoning out hog farms during the key expansion years. But lawmakers couldn’t ignore the mounting hog waste, particularly when it polluted waterways.

In 1997, the legislature imposed a temporary moratorium on new farms using lagoon-and-sprayfield systems: in 2007 it made the moratorium permanent, essentially capping the number of hog farms at around 2,300. But existing industrial farms were allowed to continue business as usual, despite widespread evidence that they were fouling the rural landscape and making for noxious neighbors.

“It smells like a body that’s been decomposed for a month,” said Rene Miller, a retired truck driver from Duplin County, the heart of hog country. Sundays after church, her family used to gather under the oak tree beside the house. They danced, played checkers, and ate fried chicken, collard greens, and corn. “That was my life back then,” she said. Now, with hog waste sprayed onto a field across the road, she stays inside with the air conditioner cranked up.

A study published in 2018 by the North Carolina Medical Journal concluded that families living near hog CAFOs saw higher rates of infant mortality and deaths from anemia, kidney disease, and tuberculosis. The researchers did not establish causality. Other studies have associated the state’s hog-farm emissions with asthma, elevated blood pressure, sleep disruptions, and depression.

A University of North Carolina study, from 2014, found these issues “disproportionately affect” people of color: African Americans are more than 1-1/2 times more likely than whites to live within three miles of an industrial hog operation in North Carolina. Latinos and Native Americans are also more likely to live near CAFOs.

The North Carolina Pork Council declined an interview request, but has in the past criticized the study from 2014.  It said the three-mile radius in the study captured too many people to be meaningful, and that co-author Steve Wing, an epidemiologist, was an outspoken hog-farm opponent. (Wing died in 2016.)

In comments submitted to DEQ last March, the Council also noted that the 2018 North Carolina Medical Journal study came from a research program at Duke University that received funding from a critic of factory farming.

The industry insists health concerns are exaggerated. “We don’t think these types of symptoms or things are going on in the communities where we do business,” Kraig Westerbeek, a senior director at Smithfield Foods, the world’s largest pork producer and the state’s dominant player, said in a deposition and in reference to an older study that found increased depression, anger, and confusion among neighbors who experienced hog-farm odors. “There are studies that can say almost anything,” he added. 


The moratorium on lagoons and spraying only applies to new farms. Meanwhile North Carolina’s legislators appear to have continued to protect existing farms and discourage neighbors from seeking help. In 2014, for example, they passed a law keeping complaints filed with the state environmental agency confidential unless the department “determines that a violation has occurred.” State Representative Jimmy Dixon, a sponsor, said the provision was designed to protect farmers from false accusations.

“We fully expect and desire to have any violations known and exposed,” the Duplin County Republican and semi-retired poultry farmer said in an interview. “But just to throw it wide open for every Tom, Dick, and Harry to make unsubstantiated claims, like some of the people do—we believe that there is an inherent expectation that I should be determined to be innocent until proven to be guilty.”

The confidentiality measure, part of a larger bill, passed with bipartisan support.

DEQ interpreted the law to require disclosure of a complaint only when there’s a formal violation notice or penalty, which the agency has historically been loath to initiate. “We believe [that] if they find a violation of the permit, they just tell the operator, ‘Hey, this doesn’t look right. You need to address it,’” said Elizabeth Haddix, managing attorney at the North Carolina regional office of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which represents some of DEQ’s critics. “They may not make any written record of that violation.” This is how, until recently, complaints vanished.

It also helps explain why the agency located only 33 complaint records for a period of more than a decade, when queried by the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting. Other states with major livestock industries had far more: Nebraska provided 2,131 complaints; Georgia 5,652; and Texas 6,411. Iowa, the top hog producing state, provided 2,393.

The North Carolina Pork Council, in a 2019 letter to DEQ, said the “relatively minimal number of violations” in the state signaled “a robust and working regulatory system.” But even careful documentation hasn’t guaranteed enforcement in North Carolina. DEQ spokesperson Sharon Martin would not discuss the complaints filed by Burdette and his colleagues after the 2016 storms. She did acknowledge the animal-operations program “is underfunded due to the last decade of budget cuts.”


Feeling unprotected by regulators, North Carolinians living near hog farms have turned to the courts, with more than two dozen lawsuits by more than 500 plaintiffs, including Rene Miller, against Smithfield Foods’ hog-production subsidiary, which contracted with farmers to raise its animals.

Former hog farmer, Don Webb, of Stantonsburg, North Carolina, now deceased, was critical of the way hog farmers disposed of waste and made that clear on his briefcase. Photo by Alex Boerner.

Meanwhile others looked to the machinery of federal and state government to hold DEQ more accountable. In September 2014, the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help, and Waterkeeper Alliance filed a complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights. It said that DEQ failed to consider the outsized harm to people of color when it issued that year’s permit governing nearly all large hog operations, violating federal civil-rights laws. The permit is issued every five years. 

The two sides agreed to mediation, which fell apart after five representatives of the North Carolina Pork Council and its national counterpart showed up at what the environmentalists call a confidential session. (They suspect DEQ employees tipped off the Pork Councils.) “That was unnerving,” said Naeema Muhammad, the Environmental Justice Network’s organizing co-director.

DEQ did not respond to questions about the mediation. In an email, Robert Brown, a publicist for the North Carolina Pork Council, said the mediation was “no secret” and that his client wanted “to engage in a constructive dialogue, recognizing that any resolution of the complaint would have a direct impact on Pork Council members.”

The Pork Council described the complaint as part of a “coordinated, multi-pronged attack on our farmers.”

After the mediation failed, EPA investigators visited North Carolina and interviewed more than 60 hog-farm neighbors. The residents described stenches so strong that it made them gag, vomit, and lock themselves indoors. Several also mentioned keeping silent, because “for more than 15 years, the government has been well aware of the conditions they have to live with, but has done nothing to help, so complaining to NC DEQ would be futile,” the EPA wrote in a letter to DEQ. Those who did complain reported “threats, intimidation, and harassment” by the industry.

Finally, in December 2016, advocates challenged the complaint problem head-on, filing a separate petition with the North Carolina Office of Administrative Hearings, alleging that DEQ had failed to investigate complaints against hog farms. The groups pointed to the photographic evidence of illegal spraying just before Tropical Storm Hermine and Hurricane Matthew and the later disappearance of those complaints.

This multifaceted campaign began to bear fruit in 2017, after a change of governors and leadership in North Carolina. Incumbent Republican Pat McCrory was replaced by Democrat Roy Cooper, and he appointed former Environmental Defense Fund official Michael Regan to head DEQ. “We all had high hope,” the Environmental Justice Network’s Muhammad said of the new administration.

Shortly after the inauguration, DEQ issued “notices of deficiency” to nine farms that had sprayed their fields right before Hermine, requiring the farms to take corrective action. These farms included five that Burdette said he photographed the previous September. DEQ based its findings on the farmer-reported logs.

The new DEQ leadership also sat down with the advocates and hammered out two settlements. In the EPA civil-rights complaint, DEQ agreed to tougher oversight in its permit for large hog operations. It would improve air and water monitoring, and would develop a mapping tool to analyze whether people of color were disproportionately harmed by its decisions. In the settlement, DEQ did not acknowledge wrongdoing.

In the other settlement, DEQ agreed to implement a new system for investigating complaints, and to post six months’ worth of data. The first posting covered November 2018 through April 2019, showing DEQ received 138 complaints and found 62 violations.

When it comes to how regulators handle complaints, “I think the settlement was a game-changer,” said Haddix.

But the results of these challenges to the industry have not been entirely positive. Take the lawsuits: On one hand, juries have returned five verdicts against Smithfield. The awards have ranged from $102,400 to $473.5 million, though the largest were dialed back under state law. But the legislature responded to the suits by limiting neighbors’ future rights to sue and collect damages. Dixon, who helped shepherd the legislation, called the lawsuits “an egregious grab of money” by attorneys.

Smithfield did not respond to interview requests. In an email, it called the largest award an “outlier verdict” and noted that appeals are pending.

More on this story
Read the first story in our series about large-scale livestock farming, on poultry price-fixing

Story was published by local news outlet, Charlotte Observer.

Barry & Sam Fromartz talked about the story on WNCU-Radio’s “The Dirt”

And DEQ declined to comment when asked if it had adopted a more aggressive policy. Advocates describe what Haddix calls a “bunker mentality” at the agency—a fear of appearing too proactive. 

For example, DEQ missed its own April 1 deadline for creating the mapping tool, which meant it couldn’t be used before the agency issued the 2019 five-year hog-farm permit. When advocates asked DEQ to issue a short-term permit until the tool could be developed, the agency balked. It said the tool was “educational” and “not intended for regulatory purposes.”

“What the hell good is a community-mapping program if it’s not going to slow down the degradation?” asked Muhammad. 

In May, DEQ posted a beta version of the tool. Haddix calls it flawed; for example, it doesn’t distinguish between large and small farms. DEQ’s Martin declined to discuss the tool.

Given the legislative climate, and lawmakers’ control over the state budget, environmentalists say they’re not surprised by the timidity at DEQ. “When I think of ‘agency capture,’ it’s not just a product of willful decisions not to enforce, or willful decisions to demonstrate favoritism to the industry,” says Will Hendrick, staff attorney for the Waterkeeper Alliance. “Some of it is agency aversion to the risk that may result from taking action against an industry that is favored at the legislature.”

In calls and emails, DEQ’s Martin would not discuss the political climate or the threat of legislative backlash. Nor would DEQ officials be available for interviews.

“That is all I am able to provide at this time,” she wrote.

Updates story on Aug. 30, 2019 to elaborate on the 2018 North Carolina Medical Journal study, note Rene Miller’s participation in the lawsuits, and add that DEQ did not acknowledge wrongdoing in the EPA civil rights complaint. The photo caption of the briefcase was corrected to note that Don Webb, of Stantonsburg, North Carolina, is now deceased.

Produced by FERN, the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, and The Guardian, a slightly shorter version of this article was first published by The Guardian. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact

You made it this far so we know you appreciate our work. FERN is a nonprofit and relies on the generosity of our readers so that we can continue producing incisive reporting like this story. Please consider making a donation to support our work. Thank you.

Listeria positives cause pause for Trumansburg farm’s raw milk products

TRUMANSBURG, N.Y.—A pair of tests indicating the presence of listeria have shut down raw milk production at Trumansburg-based Remembrance Farm. There have been two positive tests for listeria since the beginning of August, both among the farm’s raw milk products. The farm is continuing to produce products using pasteurized milk, none of which have tested positive.

The New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets published its first consumer alert about the farm on Aug. 21 after its raw milk products were tested and found to contain listeria monocytogenes, which can cause listeriosis in humans. A second consumer alert was published on Sept. 22 concerning a positive test in a specific product, the farm’s Connecticut Hill Melter raw milk cheese.

There have been no human illnesses in connection to the products, according to the state’s alert. Farm officials say the products in question were exclusively for the farm’s CSA program, meaning products on local grocery store shelves have not been impacted.

“A sample of the cheese collected by an inspector from the Department was discovered to be contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes,” states the consumer alert. “On September 15, 2023, the producer was notified of a preliminary positive test result. Further laboratory testing, completed on September 19, 2023, confirmed the presence of Listeria monocytogenes in the cheese sample.”

Currently, all raw milk products have been temporarily paused in accordance with state law after a positive listeria test.

Sean Waters, Remembrance’s herdsman, said farm workers have been searching for the source of the listeria positives but have been unsuccessful so far.

“We’ve continued to test positive in our raw milk despite making some pretty big changes in protocol, so that’s leading us to believe it’s somewhere within the environment that we haven’t found yet,” Waters said.

The farm has contracted with a third-party tester that specializes in raw milk testing. Initial tests came back negative, but further testing is taking place on the cows that produce the milk.

Raw milk products make up a minority of the products that Remembrance makes and sells, which Waters said has been a “saving grace.”

The other products can sustain the farm’s business, he said, while they determine the best course of action with the raw milk products.

Waters said no contamination has been found in any of the farm’s other products, including its vegetables and other dairy products from pasteurized milk. Production of those items has continued, with consistent testing in place.

“There’s some increased scrutiny given that we have had listeria in the larger farm,” Waters said. “So far, all of those results have come back totally clear. We feel pretty confident that the pasteurized milk is safe.”

Waters said the farm is optimistic the problem is short-term and he encouraged anyone concerned with the raw milk issues to reach out to the farm directly.

The post Listeria positives cause pause for Trumansburg farm’s raw milk products appeared first on The Ithaca Voice.

Teachers struggle to teach the Holocaust without running afoul of new ‘divisive concepts’ rules

Her face solemn, Kati Preston held up a postcard-sized, black-and-white photograph, moving it slowly to face the 150 high school students spread across the lecture hall in New Hampshire. She wanted them all to see the image of her father, a handsome man in a dapper suit jacket, as she described searching for him with her mother at a train station in Hungary in 1945.

“We stood up on the platform,” Preston said, “and we were holding a picture of my father like this, saying to everybody who got off the train, ‘Have you seen this man?’ ”

Preston, then 6 years old, stood with her mother at the station in Nagyvárad, waiting for a train carrying Jews back from concentration camps after the end of World War II. They hadn’t seen her father, Ernest Rubin, for over a year. “The train emptied, and there was no Daddy,” Preston recalled. “My mother started to cry, and I cried.” The rapt assembly of students and teachers at Kingswood Regional High School in Wolfeboro listened in silence.

Preston and her mother returned to the train station the next day, holding up the photo again. This time, a man getting off the train walked up to them. “Don’t wait for him,” he said, explaining he’d been held prisoner in the Auschwitz death camp with Preston’s father. “He’s dead.”

‘We must talk about this real history’: Reactions to ‘divisive concepts’ ban

A battle over New Hampshire’s “divisive concepts law” has been brewing in the state since 2021. The measure restricts instruction on topics that might leave students feeling inferior or superior based on race, gender, ethnicity, or another attribute, and also applies to training done by state agencies.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers proposed a repeal, eliciting more than 1,000 letters to the House Education Committee. The Hechinger Report, in partnership with The Boston Globe Magazine, analyzed a 264-letter sample to get a sense of both sides.

Preston and her mother were the only ones among their 29 Jewish relatives to survive the Holocaust, the persecution and murder of 6 million Jews. The Nazis also killed millions of other people, including gay men, political prisoners, Soviet prisoners of war and people with disabilities. Preston’s mother was born Catholic and had converted to Judaism, so the Nazis didn’t consider her Jewish, only her daughter.

For more than a decade, Preston, now 84 and the author of the young adult graphic memoir “Hidden: A True Story of the Holocaust,” has been invited to 50 to 70 middle and high schools a year to share her story. She speaks primarily in New Hampshire, her home of 40 years. Last spring, she started becoming more political in her talks, especially about the dangers of staying silent when others are scapegoated. “Ten percent of people are
very good people, wonderful people. Ten percent are pretty awful. Eighty percent are sheep, and that’s what scares me,” Preston told the students at Kingswood Regional High. “It’s the sheep that allowed Hitler to rise.”

“It’s the sheep that allowed Hitler to rise.” 

Kati Preston, Holocaust survivor who lobbied for New Hampshire’s Holocaust education law

Preston speaks frankly about the politicization of history instruction. “You have to know your history to understand where you are coming from. Don’t let them distort it,” she urges the teens, whose school of around 700 students draws from a mix of towns — poor and wealthy, conservative and liberal-leaning. She cautioned them not to let people “change your laws to stop you learning about history.”

New Hampshire schools have become battlegrounds in the culture wars over racism and gender identity, and comprehensive education on the Holocaust is in danger, experts and teachers say. In 2020, after events including the mass shooting two years earlier that killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, New Hampshire passed a law requiring instruction on the Holocaust and other genocides in grades 8 through 12. But then, in 2021, as part of a backlash to the nation’s racial reckoning after the murder of George Floyd, New Hampshire banned the teaching of “divisive concepts” such as implicit bias and systemic racism.

Kati Preston, a Holocaust survivor and education speaker, at her home in New Hampshire. Credit: Vanessa Leroy for The Boston Globe

Now these two laws are colliding in the state’s classrooms. Some of the topics that the divisive concepts laws restrict are precisely the ones that Holocaust education experts say must be covered to prevent a repeat of history. A key part of teaching about the Holocaust and other genocides is examining how one group of people could agree to participate in the mass murder of another. The answer, in part, lies in the use of propaganda that asserts one group as inferior. Adolf Hitler modeled his depiction of Jews as an inferior race on America’s racist treatment of Black people and the study of eugenics in this country.

Letters of concern to the New Hampshire Legislature and interviews with teachers reflect that, in teaching about the Holocaust, many feel scared to discuss certain topics as a way to draw contemporary parallels because of the state’s divisive concepts law.

Kingswood social studies teacher Kimberly Kelliher is among them. She says the state’s reporting mechanism for parents to accuse teachers of violating the law — plus a monetary award offered by the parent activist group Moms for Liberty aimed at encouraging such reports — frightens her. “The Holocaust is not a single event. It is a series of attitudes and actions that led to an atrocity,” says Kelliher, who has taught social studies for more than two decades. “When we look at the divisive concepts law, if we are denying people from talking about certain things, then we’re not honestly talking about the attitudes and actions.”

“The Holocaust is not a single event. It is a series of attitudes and actions that led to an atrocity. When we look at the divisive concepts law, if we are denying people from talking about certain things, then we’re not honestly talking about the attitudes and actions.” 

Kimberly Kelliher, social studies teacher, Kingswood Regional High School

Kelliher, like other teachers I spoke with, said she now avoids the word “racism” when talking to students about the Holocaust. Others say they avoid mentioning current events and hot-button topics such as implicit bias.

But a New Hampshire scholar says it’s impossible to avoid subjects like these if we truly want to learn from the atrocities of the past. “You can’t teach about Nazi perpetrators without teaching about implicit bias. You just can’t do it. What motivates the perpetrator?” says Tom White, the coordinator of educational outreach at Keene State College’s Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Hitler took advantage of implicit bias and conspiracy theories against Jews that had existed through thousands of years of antisemitism. “The central crux of fascism is to make their followers afraid that they’re under attack by another group, that they’re threatened by another group,” White says. “Implicit bias,” he adds, “is the crux of all of this.”

Preston advocated tirelessly for New Hampshire’s Holocaust education law. It mandated that beginning last school year, education on the Holocaust and other genocides start no later than eighth grade and be incorporated into at least one required high school social studies course. New Hampshire is one of 26 states with such a law, according to Echoes & Reflections, a Holocaust education organization. Massachusetts passed a law in 2022 establishing a fund to support genocide education and training; laws requiring Holocaust education now exist in every other New England state except Vermont, where it has been approved and is pending.

Under New Hampshire’s law, instruction must include facts about the Holocaust and other genocides, plus teach students “how and why political repression, intolerance, bigotry, antisemitism, and national, ethnic, racial, or religious hatred and discrimination have, in the past, evolved into genocide and mass violence.” Teachers, state Department of Education guidelines say, should help students “identify and evaluate the power of individual choices” in preventing such behavior.

A social studies classroom at Kingswood Regional High School in Wolfeboro. Credit: Vanessa Leroy for The Boston Globe

Reports of antisemitic incidents and propaganda are on the rise nationally and regionally, according to the Anti-Defamation League of New England. In 2022, the nonprofit tracked 204 antisemitic incidents in New England, a 32 percent increase from the previous year. In New Hampshire, where 183 of those incidents took place, the spike of white supremacist propaganda activity included a classmate shouting antisemitic comments at a Jewish student; a swastika and the phrase “Kill all Jews” scrawled on a rock in a public place; and a neo-Nazi group distributing stickers with the Star of David and message “Resist Zionism.”

In 2021, a year after New Hampshire’s Holocaust and genocide education act became law, the state Legislature tucked into its budget bill an unrelated provision called “Right to Freedom from Discrimination in Public Workplaces and Education.” Known informally as the “divisive concepts law,” it’s part of a wave of “anti-woke” legislation around the country that right-wing backers have identified as a way to politically capitalize on white resentment and the concern by some people that white children are being made to feel guilty about segregation and other past racial injustices.

The divisive concepts law in New Hampshire prohibits students from being “taught, instructed, inculcated or compelled to express belief in or support” that someone is “inherently superior” to another based on a particular trait, including sex, race, and religion, and also states that students cannot be taught that an individual is “inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” Educators who run afoul of this provision can face sanctions, including loss of their teaching licenses.

“The whole concept of race superiority and guilt over the past is concerning.”

Republican state Representative Glenn Cordelli, vice chair of the House Education Committee, who cosponsored New Hampshire’s initial divisive concepts bill

Republican state Representative Glenn Cordelli, vice chair of the House Education Committee, cosponsored New Hampshire’s initial divisive concepts bill, which failed to pass as a standalone law. I met him for breakfast at Katie’s Kitchen in Wolfeboro in March. A soft-spoken 74-year-old, retired from a career in information technology, he lives in Tuftonboro, a feeder town for Kingswood High. His inspiration for the measure had come from a 2020 executive order signed by then-President Trump (later rescinded by President Biden) prohibiting federal funding for training that promotes the concepts, as the executive order put it, “that some people, simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors; and that racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans.”

Cordelli told me he was concerned about teachers indoctrinating students and schools promoting critical race theory. That legal theory, which emphasizes that racism is systemic and therefore embedded in US policies and programs, has been a focus of the latest wave of conservative attacks on public education, even though it’s not commonly taught in K-12 schools.

State Representative Glenn Cordelli cosponsored New Hampshire’s initial divisive concepts bill. Credit: Vanessa Leroy for The Boston Globe

“The whole concept of race superiority and guilt over the past is concerning,” Cordelli said, citing a complaint and resignation from a Manchester public school employee over training that discussed white privilege. (“I question,” Cordelli added, “whether there is systemic racism in New Hampshire.”)

Cordelli, who voted for the Holocaust and genocide education requirements, thinks teachers should not make direct connections to ideas such as implicit bias or systemic racism when teaching about the Holocaust. Rather, he believes that in open discussion, students can connect the dots between the past and present themselves without their teachers drawing conclusions for them.

He emphasized that the Holocaust education law and the divisive concepts law are not in conflict with one another. No one testifying before the education committee had “link[ed] instruction of the Holocaust with the divisive concepts bill” before it passed, he said. “That has not come up as an issue for teachers.”

But teachers and others around the state disagree with that point of view. The state’s two largest teacher unions are suing the New Hampshire education commissioner, the attorney general, and the head of the human rights commission to repeal the divisive concepts law, citing the chilling effect it is having on teaching. Deb Howes, president of the American Federation of Teachers-New Hampshire, says the law’s title, which includes the words “Right to Freedom from Discrimination,” is downright Orwellian in its doublespeak, given the law itself “is in effect chilling speech on the very concept of discrimination against various marginalized groups.”

“The divisive concepts law is so broadly worded. None of us are teaching that anyone deserves to be inherently oppressed, but we also know that when you’re talking about either history or the impact of history on current events, there are people who are oppressed and it comes from somewhere.”

Deb Howes, president of the American Federation of Teachers-New Hampshire

The vagueness of the divisive concepts law is one of teachers’ biggest concerns, Howes adds. “The divisive concepts law is so broadly worded. None of us are teaching that anyone deserves to be inherently oppressed, but we also know that when you’re talking about either history or the impact of history on current events, there are people who are oppressed and it comes from somewhere,” she says.

Many teachers I spoke with worry about parents reporting them. Some have seen this atmosphere building for years. One New Hampshire assistant principal recalled an incident from more than a decade ago that happened to her while she was teaching: a parent overheard her say the word “Nazis” and reported her to the principal. But she was, in fact, leading a lesson about the diary of Anne Frank.

In November of 2021, the New Hampshire chapter of the group Moms for Liberty tweeted an offer of a $500 bounty to the first person who caught a teacher breaking the divisive concepts law. Tiffany Justice, the Florida mother of four who cofounded Moms for Liberty, emphasizes that her group targets the teaching of CRT, and the divisive concepts law has no effect on teaching about the Holocaust. “The idea the Holocaust couldn’t be taught in its entirety with all honest truth is a ridiculous thought,” she told me. “This is a manufactured argument.”

In November 2021, New Hampshire’s education department posted an online form for people wanting to lodge complaints against teachers. Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut was concerned about teachers “trying to impose a value system on impressionable youngsters,” according to an April 15, 2022, news release (Edelbut declined to comment for this article through a spokesperson).

Since November of 2021, only one charge related to the divisive concepts law has been filed against a teacher, the state said in response to a Hechinger Report/Boston Globe Magazine public information request. (The state human rights commission, which fields complaints against teachers under the divisive concepts law, declined to provide further information, citing its confidentiality rules regarding complaints.)

Meanwhile, many school districts, including Governor Wentworth Regional School District, where Kingswood is located, have received freedom of information requests from people wanting to know if particular books were being used and asking to see all curricula or teaching materials with particular words, including “justice” and “diversity.”

“Clearly, there are individuals and groups that are racist, homophobic, misogynistic. We can’t call them out for it?”

New Hampshire State Representative Peter Petrigno

In January, Democratic lawmakers in New Hampshire proposed a bill to repeal the divisive concepts measure, citing the chilling effect and the upheaval the current provision has already caused among educators. “I’m a German historian,” said state Representative Nicholas Germana, a professor at Keene State, during a public hearing earlier this year. “I can’t imagine for the life of me that a [measure] like this would be introduced in Germany today.”

In March, the proposed repeal died in the House. State Representative Peter Petrigno, its prime sponsor and a Democrat, said he was doubtful it ever would be passed, given the Legislature’s Republican majority, but he pledged to keep trying. “Clearly, there are individuals and groups that are racist, homophobic, misogynistic. We can’t call them out for it?” says Petrigno, a former social studies teacher. “I don’t know how you can have a lesson on the Holocaust and genocide and the issue of racism can’t come up. Inevitably, it’s going to.”

In her talks, Preston first paints a picture of a happy, privileged life in early childhood, then, little by little, unspools how she, as a Jewish child in Nazi-occupied Hungary, lost every right she had — and nearly her life. It’s a real-life lesson on racism — the Nazis considered Jews a race — against one group of people.

In 1944, when Hungary fell under German occupation, Preston was weeks away from turning 5. Preston’s father ran a wholesale fish business and often brought a fresh carp home for dinner, putting it in the bathtub to keep it cool. The young Preston would visit the fish there, she remembers. “I would say, ‘Look, I’m so sorry we’re going to eat you, but you’re going to taste so good,’ ” she told the Kingswood students, sparking laughter. Preston recalls, too, the joy of regular visits by her father’s relatives. “I basked in this wonderful love of all of these people.”

Change happened gradually at first. The Nazis began prohibiting Jews from going to school or work, and then other places. “There was a special bench with a yellow stripe on it, and it said ‘Jew,’ ” she tells students. “I could no longer go to the swimming pool with my daddy because that would be ‘contaminated’ by us.”

Roundups of Jews began, and her father and all of his relatives were taken to a fenced-in ghetto. Preston was supposed to go, too. At first, her mother hid her at home. Then a dairy farmer, grateful to Preston’s mother for making her wedding dress, offered to hide the girl in her barn, taking her there in a farm cart. One day, soldiers came and Preston heard them say to her rescuer, “Where’s the Jew? We have information you’re hiding a Jew.”

“I open my eye and a big black boot is right next to my head, and then a bayonet comes down an inch away from my head and gets stuck in the wood next to my face. Then he pulls it out and they leave. That’s somehow when my real childhood ended.”

Kati Preston, Holocaust survivor who advocated for New Hampshire’s Holocaust education law

After searching the house, the soldiers headed to the barn and climbed up to where Preston had buried herself under hay. “I open my eye and a big black boot is right next to my head, and then a bayonet comes down an inch away from my head and gets stuck in the wood next to my face. Then he pulls it out and they leave,” she recalls. “That’s somehow when my real childhood ended.” She stayed in the barn for three months until the war was over.

Dita, aged 11. Credit: Image provided by Kati Preston

Preston and her mother learned the details of what had happened to her father from the man at the train station. After her father and another prisoner at Auschwitz stole a piece of bread, both were stripped of their clothes, beaten, put in a dog kennel, and left in a field.

“It took my father two days and a night to die,” Preston told the students, as one girl covered her face in horror.

That man from the station went on to marry Preston’s mother. A few years later, he told Preston how at Auschwitz, the Nazis had made him go in one group and his first wife and their daughter, 11-year-old Dita, were directed to another — the group that was sent immediately to be killed in the gas chambers. At her school presentation, Preston raised high a photo of Dita, a girl with long braids. “She was only a few years older than me, and this little girl was killed only because she was a Jew.”

The day after Preston’s talk at Kingswood High, Kelliher led a discussion about it in class. The 14 juniors and seniors sat in a circle as their teacher turned down the lights and said quietly, “Let your eyelids be soft on your eye- balls. Take a breath.” Moments later, she tapped a chime, then asked for their impressions of Preston’s presentation.

One thing really stuck with Tegan Perkins-Levasseur, he told his classmates: It took Preston 50 years to stop feeling her own sense of hate. “I have four sons,” Preston had recollected, “and every time I gave birth to one of my sons, I was giving the finger to Hitler.” Perkins-Levasseur added, “It really made me think she has such strength.”

Next, the teacher asked, “What contributes to people becoming the evil that Nazis were?”

Austin Johnson, a senior, said Hitler came to power at a time of economic woes for Germany. “When you have a leader that comes in and says, ‘Everything will be great,’ says, ‘We’re going to make this place great,’ you can get an entire country to do what he wants,” he said. Another student, Gabe Hibbard, offered, “One of the factors was really the propaganda and teaching the Nazis that ‘hey, it’s OK to bully Jews.’ ”

Kelliher nodded, and then she asked, “Are there parallels to this in the world today?”

This is as close as Kelliher would get in class to connecting the Holocaust to today. She offered no answers to her question, and students did not latch onto it. Kelliher moved on.

“It really has had a chilling effect on teachers new to the classroom, especially teachers who may not have knowledge on teaching about genocide. What has happened is teachers are saying they’re not going to teach it at all.” 

Evan Czyzowski, a Bedford, New Hampshire, high school teacher

After class, Kelliher said the divisive concepts measure was on her mind as she taught. “It’s just a little more pressure on the words I choose.” Rather than risk a parental complaint, she puts the burden on students to bring up concepts such as systemic racism. She resents the threat hanging over her while she teaches. “It’s the stress of having to manage all of this and making sure that you’re educating them in a way that they need to be educated about these topics.”

Unlike Kelliher and some of her other colleagues, one Kingswood social studies teacher I interviewed supported the divisive concepts law and said it did not affect his teaching. He did not want his name used, partly because his view of the law is unpopular, particularly among other educators. Teachers should “stick to the facts” and help students develop the skills to reach their own conclusions, he said. “I think the kids are sophisticated enough to make the connections.”

Nicholas Germana, the German history professor and state legislator, disagrees that students will make the connections. Without teachers to help connect the dots between the past and today, he fears studies will make incorrect inferences, or draw no conclusions at all, he says. And yet helping them make such connections is “exactly the kind of thing you could lose your teacher’s license over.”

Elements of totalitarianism are not new in the United States, says Germana, noting that in the 1930s, the German American Bund organization, a U.S. group supporting the Nazis, held a rally at Madison Square Garden with a picture of George Washington and the Nazi swastika on display. The America First movement was founded in 1940.

“[The America First movement] is associated with things Trump talked about when he be- came president . . . the Muslim ban, the birther lie about President Obama, and the cozying up to strongmen like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” Germana says. “You put yourselves in a dangerous situation of thinking those forces are still not present in your society.”

The Proud Boys, a far-right group with leaders among those convicted of plotting the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, is one such example, Germana says. “You can compare Proud Boys to the creation of terrorist political cells in Germany. When you see the normalization of violence [today], the parallel between now and the 1920s is frightening.”

Kingswood Regional High School in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. Credit: Vanessa Leroy for The Boston Globe

At a January 20 training on Zoom for about 24 teachers from around New Hampshire, Tom White of Keene State tried to reassure teachers that New Hampshire’s Holocaust education requirements permitted them to talk about political oppression, bigotry, and implicit bias, despite their fears. “What I’m trying to argue today is you are safe in dealing with difficult topics,” he said, though he went on to add that it didn’t mean pressure will not come from particular groups that traffic in fear and intimidation.

He played a video clip of a teacher in Germany talking about her country’s commitment to teaching schoolchildren about the Holocaust to prevent genocide from repeating. “I also want Americans to think about what they would say if Germany all of a sudden decided ‘OK, we’re no longer teaching [about] Nazi Germany in schools because it’s too difficult for children to learn about that at age 10,’ ” she said in the video. But learning at age 10 that her grandparents’ generation and people she’d known or loved had helped perpetrate the Holocaust did not traumatize her, she continued. Instead, it made her a more politically aware, informed citizen.

Despite White’s reassurance, some teachers at the workshop said they remain afraid and struggle with how to have difficult conversations with students. One teacher spoke of an administrator accusing her of promoting a liberal agenda; others said their administrators had given little or no guidance on how to deal with the divisive concepts law and its fallout. “It really has had a chilling effect on teachers new to the classroom, especially teachers who may not have knowledge on teaching about genocide,” said Evan Czyzowski, a Bedford, New Hampshire, high school teacher who co-taught the workshop with White. “What has happened is teachers are saying they’re not going to teach it at all.”

“If we’re learning about the Holocaust but not thinking about how that should inform our future decision making, what’s the point of learning about it? If it’s something bound in the past that has no relevance to today, I think we’re missing the point.” 

Sean O’Mara, a social studies teacher at Keene Middle School

At the workshop, Morgan Baker, a teacher at Conant Middle High School in Jaffrey, sought advice from White. “You used the phrase ‘systemic racism.’ If I’m being honest with you, that’s not a phrase I’m comfortable using in my classroom,” said Baker, who said students have come into his classes carrying Confederate flags or displaying it on T-shirts or hats. “I’m a new teacher . . . It’s a lot to wrap my head around. How do I do this without dealing with a lot of backlash?”

In his answer, White shared an anecdote about a ninth-grade student who shouted “Proud Boys Rule!” in the middle of a lecture on the Holocaust at a New Hampshire high school. When White asked the student why he felt that way, the student explained why he thought the Proud Boys were important and that he disliked Biden, alleging that the president was a pedophile.

Eventually, White recognized that the student had misinterpreted a photograph — popular in online conspiracy theorist circles — of Biden comforting his granddaughter at her father’s funeral. When White explained the picture, the boy was taken aback and pledged to remove his social media posts spreading the misinformation. White advised Baker to start a similar conversation with students displaying the Confederate flag.

After the workshop, Baker and his colleague Susan Graage, who teaches about the Holocaust in literature classes, tell me they appreciate White’s advice but remain worried. Some students will just blurt out “Hitler” and laugh, Graage says. “I feel like that didn’t happen 10 years ago.”

Teaching about racism in general is the main target of divisive concept laws, and the law has hurt attempts to teach about hate in all of its forms, New Hampshire teachers told me in interviews. An English teacher at Kingswood, Sarah Straz, says some community members’ right to know requests searching for references to diversity and related topics have instilled fear in some teachers. And yet, she says, in a predominantly white school like hers, it should be an imperative to make sure the students know about the historical oppression of African Americans and how it relates to today.

At least six other states have both Holocaust education mandates and divisive concepts laws, according to Jennifer Goss, program manager of Echoes & Reflections. Despite assurances to the contrary, she believes the laws, in addition to negatively affecting instruction on Black history, are leading to restrictions on Holocaust education. Several schools around the country, for example, have pulled a graphic adaptation of Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl” because of her ponderings about human sexuality and kissing a female friend, which critics describe as promoting a homosexual agenda. In Colorado, a state board member tried to remove the word “Nazi” from standards on Holocaust education to, as Goss says, “deemphasize the role of a nationalistic political party in the Holocaust.”

White himself has experienced resistance to language he has used. In April, after he spoke to the roughly 200 eighth graders at Keene Middle School, a parent complained to the principal that White referred to the Nazis as a right-wing movement and compared them with today’s Republican Party in America. The parent did not attend the talk and was basing the complaint on what their child had relayed. White says he didn’t make a comparison to the GOP, but that he had referred to the Nazi party as right wing because that’s a historical fact.

A wall of family photos at Kati Preston’s home in New Hampshire. Credit: Vanessa Leroy for The Boston Globe

Sean O’Mara, a social studies teacher at Keene Middle School who attended that talk, frets about the current atmosphere’s effect on teaching history. “If we’re learning about the Holocaust but not thinking about how that should inform our future decision making, what’s the point of learning about it?” he asks. “If it’s something bound in the past that has no relevance to today, I think we’re missing the point.”

Kati Preston plans to speak at schools for as long as she’s able. She’s troubled when she hears about book banning, a hallmark of the Nazi regime. “It worries me because I see parallels,” she says. Still, the students she meets give her hope. Inevitably, moved by her words, some stand in line to meet her and exchange hugs. Some write letters: An eighth grader recently wrote her to say he was ashamed by some of his behavior and that her speech made him want to be a better person.

Some students, such as Tegan Perkins-Levasseur at Kingswood, seek her wisdom in the question-and-answer period after her talks. “What’s one thing you would tell the younger generation today about what happened back then?” he asked her at Kingswood High.

“I think I would tell them to get an education. The more you know, the less you fear. The less you fear, the less you’re violent,” Preston responded. “Most things happen because you’re afraid of the ‘other.’ I think education makes us more equal.”

This story on learning about the Holocaust was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in partnership with The Boston Globe Magazine. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Who picks school curriculum? Idaho law hands more power to parents

TWIN FALLS, Idaho — When J.D. Davis, the department chair of English at Twin Falls High School, was told last year that half of the committee he was leading to pick new texts and materials for the district’s English Language Arts classrooms would be parents and community members, he objected.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to have parents involved! They don’t know what we’re doing. They don’t know what we need in a textbook as far as curriculum.’ I kind of scoffed at it,” said Davis, who also teaches journalism, oversees the school newspaper and advises the Gay-Straight Alliance.

A new Idaho law gave him no choice.

Across the U.S., educators typically lead textbook selections, although many districts, like Twin Falls, have long included parents in the process. Idaho’s “District Curricular Adoption Committees” law makes parent involvement mandatory — and then some — demanding districts form committees of at least 50 percent non-educators, including parents of current students, to review and recommend new texts and materials.

A year in, the law is reshaping what is or isn’t in the curriculum in many counties in this Western state, including how subjects like climate change or social movements are discussed in some courses.

It has spurred tough but positive parent-school discussions in Twin Falls where parents and educators say the conversations have forced them to consider one another’s concerns and perspectives. In other districts, however, it’s poised to harden divisions and keep students from getting learning tools they need.

Whitney Urmann, who attended schools in West Bonner County School District and taught fourth grade last year, packed up her classroom to teach in California. Credit: Image provided by Seth Hodgson

Related: Inside Florida’s ‘underground lab’ for far-right policies

Around the country, curricula — books and materials that guide but don’t define lessons — have become a political target of conservatives who fear conflict with values they want to instill in their children. Over the past two years, 147 “parental rights” bills were introduced in state legislatures, according to a legal tracker by the education think tank FutureEd.

Only a handful passed. Many restrict discussions around race and gender. Several enforce parents’ ability to review texts and materials. A 2022 Georgia “Parents’ Bill of Rights” requires that schools provide parents access to classroom and assigned materials within three days of a request. The Idaho curriculum law, embraced by the state’s conservative legislature, went into effect in July 2022.

The curriculum law is noteworthy because it gives non-educators more power not just to inspect curriculum, but to help choose it.

Twin Falls High School is home to English department chair J.D. Davis, who led a committee that was 50 percent community members and parents in selecting a new district English Language Arts curriculum, in accordance with a new Idaho law. Credit: Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report

Some educators view it as a political move to undercut their professional role. “The parent partnership is important,” said Peggy Hoy, an instructional coach in the Twin Falls district and the National Education Association director for Idaho. “The problem is when you make a rule like they did and there is this requirement, it feels as an educator that the underlying reason is to drive a wedge between the classroom and parents.”

Sally Toone, a recently retired state representative and veteran teacher who opposed the law, sees it as a legislative move by conservatives “to have parents be a driver, instead of a partner, in the educational process.”

Educators also voiced practical considerations. It can be tough for districts to find parents to devote time to curriculum review. Many have had to scramble, Hoy and others said. Only three non-educators agreed to serve on a math curriculum committee in Twin Falls, which meant that only three educators could participate — fewer than half the optimal number, said the educator who led the committee. Ditto for a science curriculum committee in Coeur D’Alene.

“My family and I are very religious. My biggest concern as a father was, ‘What are my children going to be reading?’ ”

Chris Reid, a father of seven who served on the committee to select a new English Language Arts curriculum for the Twin Falls School District

Having many non-educators involved also changes how materials are judged. Educators want to know, for example, if lessons are clear and organized, and whether they connect to prior learning and support students of differing levels. By contrast, “parents don’t understand the pedagogy of what happens in a curriculum,” said Hoy. They “look at the stories, the word problems, the way they are explaining it.”

Rep. Judy Boyle, a Republican state legislator who sponsored the law, initially agreed to an interview but did not respond to several requests to arrange it.

Related: Population booms overwhelm schools in the West: ‘Someone’s going to get left behind’

During the review process in Twin Falls, a district with 9,300 students in southern Idaho, parents objected to a theme around peaceful protests, the tone of questions around climate change and lessons that included social emotional learning.

The curriculum with social emotional learning “got nixed pretty quickly,” said Davis, the English teacher leading the committee. Social emotional learning (SEL) — tools and strategies that research shows can help students better grasp academic content — has become a new lightning rod for the far-right across and is often conflated with Critical Race Theory or CRT.

Chris Reid, a banker and vice mayor of Twin Falls and father with seven children in the public schools, said he was eager to help select the new English Language Arts curriculum and make sure materials were “age-appropriate” and not include “revisionist history,” LGBTQ themes or sexuality introduced “to younger-age children.”

“My family and I are very religious,” said Reid, sitting one afternoon in his mezzanine office at First Federal Bank. “My biggest concern as a father was, ‘What are my children going to be reading?’”

Chris Reid, a father of seven who served on the committee to select a new English Language Arts curriculum for the Twin Falls School District, in his office at First Federal Bank. Participating in the curriculum review, he said, convinced him that teachers “are not trying to indoctrinate my child.” Credit: Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report

Despite some tense conversations, Davis, the teacher, said the process was overall “not threatening.” He also liked the curriculum choice, the myPerspectives textbooks by Savvas Learning Company. He does, however, see risks with the new mandate, including that a parent or community member with an agenda “could hamstring the district from getting the best textbook,” he said. “It could literally be one member of the committee.”

Committee member Anna Rill, a teacher at Canyon Ridge High School, said the difficult conversations about content “made us think a little more about the community you are living in and that you are serving.”

Twin Falls, named for the waterfalls formed by the Snake River Canyon dam, which in the early 1900s turned the area from desert into a rich agricultural region now called “The Magic Valley,” is politically conservative (70 percent voted for Donald Trump in 2020). L.H. Erickson, director of secondary programs for the school district, said he thought the curriculum “should meet the values and ideals of your community.”

Increasing public involvement makes good sense because schools must be responsive to parent views, said Erickson. “Parents give us their children for several hours a day and a lot of trust and we want to make sure to earn and keep that trust.”

Reid, the father of seven, liked being able to share his. “I got to hear other perspectives; they got to understand my side on the content,” he said. The experience led him to conclude that, “teachers are not evil. They are not trying to indoctrinate my child.”

Related: States were adding lessons about Native American history. Then came the anti-CRT movement

The new law may help to build bridges in Twin Falls and some other communities. But in West Bonner County, which serves about 1,000 students in rural north Idaho, a year-old dispute over an English Language Arts curriculum continues to fuel division.

The blow-up began last summer. In June, before the new law went into effect, the curriculum review committee, which included a few parents, chose the Wonders English Language Arts curriculum from McGraw-Hill. The school board approved it quickly and unanimously. The materials were purchased and delivered. “They were stacked in the hallways,” one parent said.

Then, some local conservative activists loudly objected, saying the materials contained social emotional learning components. In developing the curriculum, McGraw-Hill had partnered with Sesame Workshop to include SEL skills that language on the Wonders site said included “a focus on self-confidence, problem-solving, and pro-social behavior.” At a meeting on Aug. 24, 2022, the school board voted 3-1 to rescind the curriculum.

Sally Toone, a rancher, teacher for 37 years and recently retired state representative, voted against the Idaho curriculum review law, which she said was a move by conservatives “to have parents be a driver, instead of a partner, in the educational process.” Credit: Laura Pappano for The Hechinger Report

Because the existing curriculum is out of print, the district lacked a reading program last year.

“We had no spelling lists, no word work. The first unit was on the desert and we live in north Idaho,” said Whitney Urmann, who taught fourth grade last year at West Bonner County School District’s Priest Lake Elementary School. “Very early on, I stopped using the curriculum,” Urmann said.

She had two workbooks for her entire class and few books leveled to her students’ abilities. Other materials were incomplete or irrelevant, she said. From mid-October on, she said, she purchased materials herself, spending $2,000 of her $47,000 salary to be able to teach reading.

The board’s decision, said Margaret Hall, the board member who cast the dissenting vote, “has created some ill feelings.” Indeed: Two board members who voted to rescind the curriculum now face a recall after parents gathered enough signatures on petitions to force a vote.

Shouting at one school board meeting in June went on for nearly four hours.

The dispute, and the subsequent absence of teaching materials, has upset some local parents.

Hailey Scott, a mother of three, said she worries that her child entering first grade, an advanced reader, won’t “be challenged.” Meanwhile, her third grader is behind in reading, said Scott, “and I fear she will be set back even more by not having a state-approved curriculum in her classroom.”

Whitney Hutchins, who grew up in the district and works at the Priest Lake resort her family has owned and operated for generations, recently decided with her husband to move across the state line to Spokane, Washington.

“This is not the environment I want to raise my child in,” said Hutchins, mother of an 18-month-old. She said the curriculum law is part of a larger problem of extremists gaining control and destroying civic institutions.

“It is scary to me that 50 percent of people choosing the curriculum are not going to be teachers,” she said. “It is scary to me that it is going to be people with a political agenda who don’t believe in public education.”

Whitney Urmann, a fourth grade teacher at Priest Lake Elementary School last year, said that by October she had exhausted all available materials in the reading curriculum, which is out of print. Credit: Image provided by Whitney Urmann

Hutchins doesn’t see things improving. The school board, on a 3-2 vote, chose Branden Durst — who was previously a senior analyst at the far-right Idaho Freedom Foundation and has no educational experience — as the district’s new superintendent over Susie Luckey, the interim superintendent and a veteran educator in the district.

Durst said that he wanted the job because of the district’s challenges, including around curriculum. “I have a lot of ideas that are frankly unorthodox in education. I needed to prove to myself that those things are right,” he said. Those ideas could include using a curriculum developed by the conservative Christian Hillsdale College, he said.

Durst is currently assembling a new committee with plans to quickly adopt a new English Language Arts curriculum, but declined to share details.

“It is scary to me that 50 percent of people choosing the curriculum are not going to be teachers. It is scary to me that it is going to be people with a political agenda who don’t believe in public education.”

Whitney Hutchins, mother who recently decided to leave Twin Falls for Spokane, Washington

Jessica Rogers, who served on the committee that picked the Wonders curriculum, said she saw hints of trouble long before the vote to reject the curriculum. She said the curriculum adoption committee anticipated political attacks, including over images that showed racial diversity. “One of the things we did was go through the curriculum and see where the first blond-haired, blue-eyed boy was,” she recalled, adding that they noted pages to use as a defense.

It was, she said, “bizarre.”

Rogers and her husband recently built a home atop a hill with a broad view of Chase Lake. As her three daughters had a water fight on the patio, she hoped aloud that building in the West Bonner County School District was not a mistake.

This story about curriculum reviews was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Why are we paying for crop failures in the desert?

In mid-July in Phoenix, a man demonstrated to a local news station how to cook steak on the dashboard of his car. The city sweltered through a nearly monthlong streak of 110-degree temperatures this summer, while heat records are tumbling across the Southwest. 

But despite the signs that this is the new normal, farmers in the region are planting the same thirsty crops on the same parched land in the desert, and watching them wither year after year. And why not? The American taxpayer is covering their losses.

Research released in June by the Environmental Working Group shows that, since 2001, heat linked to climate change has driven $1.33 billion in insurance payouts to farmers across the Southwest for crops that failed amid high temperatures. As the planet warms through the century, payments resulting from the impacts of climate change across the nation are likely to increase by as much as $3.7 billion.

Studies have repeatedly shown that federally subsidized crop insurance discourages farmers from updating their practices, tools, or strategies in ways that would help them adapt to climate change—but the federal government still subsidizes a whopping 62 percent of farmers’ insurance premiums. Until someone in Washington figures out a better way to spend our money, farmers in the Southwest are going to keep planting thirsty crops in the desert. They have little incentive not to.

Heat linked to climate change has driven $1.33 billion in insurance payouts to farmers across the Southwest for crops that failed amid high temperatures.

The Federal Crop Insurance Program (FCIP), the world’s largest crop insurance system, was established in the wake of the Dust Bowl to protect farmers from debilitating acts of God—decades before a growing body of scientific work firmly established the link between our fossil fuel use and rising temperatures. Although the government’s safety net for farmers includes an array of tools, this single program’s annual $10-billion price tag, which covers everything from drought in Arizona to flooding in Mississippi, accounts for a third of all public money spent on agriculture. Four-fifths of that are used to subsidize farmers’ costs.

Buoyed by ardent lobbying from large agricultural interests, the FCIP guarantees near-normal revenues in the face of losses that would cripple other businesses. It props up poorly managed operations while enabling risky decisions—like growing thirsty crops in a desert where millions of people vie for dwindling supplies of water.

In states like Arizona that depend on the stressed Colorado River, how and what farmers choose to grow has taken on new importance. Agriculture uses three-quarters of the region’s water to raise crops like cotton, which sucks up an average of 41 inches of irrigation annually, compared to wheat, which needs just 25 inches. Despite the arid conditions, there are plenty of reasons why farmers in the Southwest grow cotton, including the market, availability of financing, past experience, and the tools at hand. Subsidized insurance is a big one.

Although the program covers more than 100 different crops across the U.S., the vast majority of payouts go to corn, soybeans, wheat, and cotton, which are planted nationally on the most acres. Cotton is unique in the FCIP program in that it accounts for only 5 percent of the total acres enrolled in FCIP policies, but it has received a full 10 percent of claim payments over the past three decades—thanks in part to its intense water needs and the droughts that have roiled portions of the country in recent years. In central Arizona, where farmers experience the most acute impacts of Colorado River water shortages, a bale of cotton that sells for 65 cents actually costs 83 cents to raise. Still, cotton growers in Pinal County, south of Phoenix, continue planting with help from around $10 million in annual crop insurance payments—more than in any other county in the state.

Agricultural production is worth protecting; food and fiber are too important to subject to the increasingly cruel vagaries of the weather and global trade. But as it stands, the FCIP is maladapted to the challenges of  our modern world, where places like Arizona are routinely smashing through heat records and water in the West is becoming increasingly scarce. While home insurers like State Farm are pulling out of California and Florida due to the mounting costs of climate disasters, the FCIP is doing the opposite: insulating farmers from the true cost of doing business.

The average return for home and auto policies is about $0.60 per dollar spent on premiums. Farmers receive an average of $2.22 for every dollar they put into crop insurance. As a result, between 2000 and 2016, farming businesses—mostly large ones—collectively pocketed $65 million more in claim payments than they paid in premiums. They were paid to plant crops that never came to market. 

What is clear is that farmers’ participation in subsidized crop insurance programs is primarily driven by its availability.

Despite these failures, some of Washington’s most influential players say that the FCIP is working just fine. Collin Peterson, a 15-term Democratic Congressman from Minnesota who is now a lobbyist for the agriculture industry, said last year that the program is “the most successful thing we’ve done in agriculture.” Without federally subsidized crop insurance, he argues, farmers would be unable to compete with global markets or Mother Nature. But farmers saw prices and incomes strengthen during the years leading to 1980, before Congress expanded the program to subsidize premiums. Other supporters contend that consumers would suffer from skyrocketing prices. Yet economists have found no meaningful link between food and fiber prices and crop insurance.

What is clear is that farmers’ participation in subsidized crop insurance programs is primarily driven by its availability. When faced with paying the full cost of premiums themselves, farmers find other, cheaper means of managing risk, like conservation practices that save money in the long run, according to a recent analysis by The American Enterprise Institute.

The age of climate change demands better ways of managing risk. We need agriculture—even in Arizona. There’s good sun in the desert, and it makes sense to take advantage of that asset by planting well-suited crops. Some farmers are trying overlooked native food crops, including beans or experimental rubber plants, but these so far lack the market opportunity that the FCIP helps to maintain for cotton.

I’ve met farmers in Arizona who would gladly accept an alternative to cotton if it were economically viable. But there are other factors in play. Although the FCIP is government funded, its policies are sold and serviced by 14 private insurance companies that have gotten rich by keeping things exactly as they are.

Most of the program’s money not spent subsidizing premiums is used to reimburse these companies’ administrative costs. Ten of these are large, publicly traded corporations whose CEOs collectively take home almost $112 million a year, according to the EWG. And they all earn a 14.5 percent rate of return on their investments, compared to the 10 percent common to other insurance industries. This is thanks to the lobbying efforts of groups like the nonprofit American Farm Bureau Federation, which owns American Farm Bureau Insurance Services, Inc.—one of those 10 providers. 

Lawmakers are currently negotiating a new farm bill—a once-every-five-years opportunity to set FCIP policy. Subsidies still make sense for many farmers, especially small ones, but a few updates to the program would go a long way. First, funds should be reserved for the growers most in need, not millionaire operations. Next, to adapt to climate change, forecasts for determining premiums should be based on the latest climate models, rather than historic trends. Painting a more accurate picture of the risk would inform more sustainable cropping decisions.

Most importantly, FCIP funds should be used to pay farmers to permanently retire acres that consistently fail to produce. This would allow farmers to focus their efforts and resources where they do the most good. The program should also limit its coverage of crops ill-suited to their regions, and instead invest in existing conservation programs and research into markets for desert-adapted products. A sober fix would be to reapportion some FCIP funds to existing programs that help farmers upgrade their irrigation systems, or that provide conservation and agricultural assistance—including those that help reduce on-farm greenhouse gas emissions.This is all politically difficult, but it’s not impossible—and the advancing water crisis in the West means that time is of the essence. In May, legislators celebrated the latest inadequate agreement for sharing what’s left of the Colorado River. Like the winter’s generous snowpack and spring’s encouraging rains, the deal will buy a little more time to find a sustainable solution to the region’s chronic water shortage. Meanwhile, technocrats float implausible fixes, like piping in water from the Mississippi River basin or desalting the Sea of Cortez. Congress has an opportunity to end some of this absurdity—to change the incentives to reflect the reality of a changing climate, and allow desert farmers to continue providing food and fiber while doing their share to help avoid a calamitous future.

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To fight teacher shortages, schools turn to custodians, bus drivers and aides 

MORGAN CITY, La. — Jenna Gros jangles as she walks the halls of Wyandotte Elementary School in St Mary’s Parish, Louisiana. The dozens of keys she carries while she sweeps, sprays, shelves and sorts make a loud sound, and when children hear her coming, they call out, “Miss Jenna!” 

Gros is head custodian at Wyandotte, in this small town in southern Louisiana. She’s also a teacher-in-training.  

In August 2020, she signed up for a new program designed to provide people working in school settings the chance to turn their job into an undergraduate degree in education, at a low cost. There’s untapped potential among people who work in schools right now, as classroom aides, lunchroom workers, afterschool staff and more, the thinking goes, and helping them become teachers could ease the shortage that’s dire in some districts around the country, particularly in rural areas like this one. 

Brusly Elementary School has 595 students, ranging from ages two to seven. Principal Lesley Green says teacher retention is one of her top priorities: “Because we know that the best thing for our babies is stability and consistency. And that’s very important at this age level, especially where they thrive off of routines, procedures and familiar faces.” Credit: Kavitha Cardoza for The Hechinger Report

In two and a half years, the teacher training program, run by nonprofit Reach University, has grown from 50 applicants to about 1,000, with most coming from rural areas of Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama and California. The “apprenticeship degree” model costs students $75 dollars a month. The rest of the funding comes from Pell Grants and philanthropic donations. The classes, which are online, are taught by award-winning teachers, and districts must agree to have students work in the classroom for 15 hours a week as part of their training.

We have overlooked a talent pool to our detriment,” said Joe Ross, president of Reach University. “These people have heart and they have the grit and they have the intelligence. There’s a piece of paper standing in the way.” 

Efforts to recruit teacher candidates from the local community date back to the 1990s, but programs have “exploded” in number over the past five years, said Danielle Edwards, assistant professor  of educational leadership, policy and workforce development at Old Dominion University in Virginia. Some of these “grow your own” programs, like Reach’s, recruit school employees who don’t have college degrees or degrees in education, while others focus on retired professionals, military veterans, college students, and even K12 students, with some starting as young as middle school.

“‘Grow your own’ has really caught on fire,” said Edwards, in part because of research showing that about 85 percent of teachers teach within 40 miles of where they grew up. But while these programs are increasingly popular, she says it isn’t clear what the teacher outcomes are in terms of effectiveness or retention. 

Related: Teacher shortages are real, but not for the reasons you’ve heard

Nationwide, there are at least 36,500 teacher vacancies, along with approximately 163,000 positions held by underqualified teachers, according to estimates by Tuan Nguyen, anassociate professor of education at Kansas State University. At Wyandotte, Principal Celeste Pipes has three uncertified teachers out of 26. 

“We are pulling people literally off the streets to fill spots in a classroom,” she said. Surrounding parishes in this part of Louisiana, 85 miles west of New Orleans, pay more than the starting salary of $46,000 she can offer; some even cover the full cost of health insurance. 

Data suggests not having qualified teachers can worsen student achievement and increase costs for districts. An unstable workforce also affects the school culture, said Pipes: “Once we have people here that are years and years and years in, we know how things are run.”

Jenna Gros, head custodian at Wyandotte Elementary School in St Mary’s Parish, Louisiana, stops to tie a student’s shoe. She said she makes it a point to develop relationships with students: “We don’t just do garbage, you know?” Credit: Kavitha Cardoza for The Hechinger Report

As Gros walks the hallways, she stops to swat a fly for a scared child, ties a first grader’s shoelaces and asks a third about their math homework. Her colleagues had long noticed her calm, encouraging manner, and so, when a teacher’s aide at Wyandotte heard about Reach, she urged Gros to sign up with her. 

Gros grew up in this town — her father worked as a mechanic in the oil rigs — and always wanted to be a teacher. But with three children and a salary of $22,000 a year, she couldn’t afford to do so. The low cost and logistics of Reach’s program suddenly made it possible: Her district agreed to her spending 15 hours of her work week in the classroom, mentoring or tutoring students. She takes her online classes at night or on weekends.

Like other teacher-candidates at Reach University, Jenna Gros spends 15 hours a week in classrooms. She sometimes observes teachers, and other times helps children in small groups. Credit: Kavitha Cardoza for The Hechinger Report

Current employees are also in the retirement system, meaning the years they’ve already worked count toward their pension. For Gros, who has worked for 18 years in her school system, that was an important consideration, she said. 

Pipes said people like Gros understand the vibe of this rural community — the importance of family, the focus on church, the love of hunting. And people with community roots are also less likely to leave, said Chandler Smith, the superintendent in West Baton Rouge Parish School System, a few hours’ drive away. 

His district is the second-highest paying in the state but still struggles to attract and retain teachers: It saw a 15 percent teacher turnover rate last year. Now, it has 29 teacher candidates through Reach. 

Related: Uncertified teachers filling holes across the South 

In West Baton Rouge Parish, Jackie Noble is walking back into the Brusly Elementary school building at 6:45 p.m. She’d finished her workday as a special education teacher’s aide around 3:30 p.m., then babysat her granddaughter for a few hours, spent time with her husband, and picked up a McDonald’s order of chicken nuggets, a large coffee and a Coke to get her through her evening classes. Some Reach classes go until 11 p.m. 

Noble was a bus driver in this area for five years, but she longed to be a teacher. When she mustered the courage to research options for joining the profession, she learned it would cost somewhere between $5,000 to $15,000 a year over at least four years. “I wasn’t even financially able to pay for my transcript because it was going to cost me almost $100,” she said. 

When Noble heard about Reach and the monthly tuition of $75 a month, she said, “My mouth hit the floor.”

Ross, of Reach University, said he often hears some variation of: “I had to choose between a job and a degree.” 

“What if we eliminate the question?” he said. “Let’s turn jobs into degrees.”

Brusly Elementary is quiet as Noble settles down in a classroom. She moves her food strategically off camera and ensures she has multiple devices logged in: her phone, laptop and desktop. Sometimes the internet here is spotty, and she doesn’t want to take any chances. 

It’s the night of the final class of her course, “Children with Special Needs: History and Practice.” Her 24 classmates smile and wave as they log on from different states. They’ve been taking turns presenting on disabilities such as dyslexia, brain injuries and deafness; Noble gave hers, on assistive technologies for children with physical disabilities, last week. 

Reach began in 2006 as a certification program for entry-level teachers who had a degree but still needed a credential. It then expanded to offer credentials to teachers who wanted to move into administration as well as graduate degrees in teaching and leadership. In 2020, Reach University started the program focused on school employees without a degree.

Kim Eckert, a former Louisiana teacher of the year and Reach’s dean, says she was drawn to the program because, as a high school special education teacher, she saw how little opportunity there was for classroom aides in her school to boost their skills. She started monthly workshops specifically for them.  

Kimberly Eckert, dean of Reach University and the 2018 Louisiana Teacher of the Year, stands outside Brusly Elementary School in West Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana. She says there’s an untapped pool of potential teacher candidates working as secretaries, bus drivers and janitors that society hasn’t traditionally considered as possible educators. “We definitely have blinders on. I think we’re conditioned to think that teachers look and sound and behave a certain way and we need to push ourselves and those limitations as well.” Credit: Kavitha Cardoza for The Hechinger Report

In growing the Reach program, Eckert drew from her teacher-of-the-year class, hiring people who understood the realities of classroom management and could model what it’s like to be a great teacher. She shied away from those who haven’t proven themselves in the classroom, even if they have degrees from top universities. “Everybody thinks they can be a teacher because they’ve had a teacher,” she said, but that’s not true. 

The 15 hours a week of “in-class training,” which can include observing a teacher, tutoring students or helping write lessons, is designed to allow students to test out what they’re learning almost immediately, without having to wait months or years to put their studies into practice. Michelle Cottrell Williams, a Reach administrator and Virginia’s 2018 teacher of the year, recalls discussing an exercise in class about Disney’s portrayal of historical events versus the reality. One of her students, a classroom aide, shared it with the fifth graders she was working with the next day. 

Noble says she’ll carry lessons about managing students from the bus to her classroom. She was responsible for up to 70 students while driving 45 miles an hour — so 20 in a classroom seems doable, she said. 

She can’t wait to have her own classroom where she is responsible for everything. “Being with the students approximately eight hours a day, you make a very, very larger impression on their lives,” she said. 

Related: In one giant classroom, four teachers manage 135 kids — and love it 

In May, Reach graduated its first class of teachers, a group of 13 students from Louisiana who had prior credits. The organization’s first full cohort will walk across the stage in spring 2024. 

There are promising signs. Nationwide, about half of teacher candidates pass their state’s teaching licensure exam; more than 60 percent of the 13 Reach graduates did. All of them had a job waiting for them, not only in their local community, but in the building where they’d been working. 

But Roddy Theobald, deputy director of the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research and researcher at the American Institutes for Research, says far more research is needed on “grow your own” programs. “There’s very, very little empirical evidence about the effectiveness of these pathways,” he said. 

One of the challenges is that the programs rarely target the specific needs of schools, he said. Some states have staffing shortages only in specific areas, like special education, STEM or elementary ed. “Sometimes they result in even more teachers with the right credentials to teach courses that the state doesn’t actually need,” he said. 

Reach University has several state Teachers of the Year among its faculty for its ‘grown your own’ program, including from Virginia, Idaho, Delaware and Hawaii. Dean Kim Eckert, herself a 2018 teacher of the year from Louisiana, says she wanted the best educators with the latest information in front of her teacher candidates. “It’s not like a typical university where in four years you’ll have your own class and you’ll be a great teacher. You are in your own class right now,” Eckert says. Credit: Kavitha Cardoza for The Hechinger Report

Edwards, one of the first researchers to study “grow your own” programs, is investigating whether teachers who complete them are effective in the classroom and stay employed in the field long term, as well as how diverse these educators are and whether they actually end up in hard-to-staff schools. 

“States are investing millions of dollars into this strategy, and we don’t know anything about its effectiveness,” she said. “We could be putting all this money into something that may or may not work.” 

Ross, of Reach University, says his group plans to research whether its new teachers are effective and stay in their jobs. In terms of meeting schools’ specific labor needs, Reach has agreements with other organizations such as TNTP (formerly The New Teacher Project) and the University of West Alabama to help people take higher-level courses in hard-to-fill specialties such as high school math. But while Reach staff look at information on teacher vacancies before partnering with a school district, they don’t focus on matching the district’s exact staffing needs said Ross: “Our hope is the numbers work themselves out.”

Jenna Gros, the head custodian of Wyandotte, makes it a point to know children’s names and speak to them as she works. “It’s about building a bond. You have to be able to bond with them in order to make them feel like they are someone and that they can be someone,” she says. Credit: Kavitha Cardoza for The Hechinger Report

In Louisiana, Ross said he believes the organization could put a serious dent in the teacher vacancy numbers statewide. Some 84 percent of all parishes have signed on for Reach trainees, he said, and 650 teachers-in-training are enrolled. That amounts to more than a quarter of the teacher vacancy numbers statewide, 2,500.

“We’re getting pretty close to being a material contribution to the solution in that state,” he said. 

His group is also looking to partner with states, including Louisiana, to use Department of Labor money for teacher apprenticeships. At least 16 states have such programs. Under a Labor Department rule last year, teacher apprenticeships can now access millions in federal job-training funds. Reach is in talks to use some of that money, which Ross says would allow it to make the programs free to students and rely less on philanthropy.  

A straight-A student since her first semester, head custodian Jenna Gros expects to graduate without any debt in May 2024. She expects to teach at this same elementary school. At that point, her salary will almost double.

She said she loves how a teacher can shape a child’s future for the better. “That’s what a teacher is — a nurturer trying to provide them with the resources that they are going to need for later on in life. 

I think I can be that person,” she said. She pauses. “I know I can.” 

This story about grow your own programs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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