Gubernatorial candidates Karl Dean and Randy Boyd both considered Renata Soto’s Conexion Americas organization a worthy investment. Democrat Karl Dean used the government’s money while mega-millionaire Republican Randy Boyd used his personal wealth to help Conexion’s legal and illegal alien clients.
The same year that Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) completed its construction in Conexion’s Casa Azafran community center for pre-K classrooms, Randy Boyd and his wife donated $250,000 to expand the commercial kitchen in the same building.
Conexion Americas is a formal affiliate of UnidosUS (formerly known as the National Council of La Raza). Conexion’s founder and co-director, Renata Soto, has had a long-standing leadership role with UnidosUS serving first as vice-chair of the board in 2012, until she was elected as chairman in 2015 when the organization was still named La Raza. She remains listed as Chairman for the 2017-2018 slate.
Two years earlier, with the support of then Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and the Metro Council $5 million of Nashville’s money was appropriated to open Pre-K “hubs” at three locations including Conexion Americas’ Casa Azafran building. This expenditure by the city helped MNPS qualify for an $8.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to continue expanding Pre-K programming in Nashville. The district was subsequently awarded an additional $33 million federal grant funding the city’s Pre-K programs through FY2019.
The group of children targeted to fill the “400 new prekindergarten seats” created by the grant funds, were economically disadvantaged students or English Language learners “in an effort to help close the achievement gap and opportunity gap.”
In 2016, The Ledger published a story lauding Conexion’s Soto for her work advancing the interests of Latinos:
Latino children already represent 24 percent of children in Metro schools, and more than 30 percent of students come from families where English is not the primary language, according to Soto.
Metro schools added about 1,200 to 1,500 English learners and Latino children annually until the past year when 3,000 entered the system, Soto says. She points out by the year 2040, Nashville will be one-third Hispanic and one-third African American.
Metro School Board member Will Pinkston added that “16 percent of Metro’s students are classified as English language learners and 10 percent have limited English proficiency. A large percentage of them are English learners in grades K-3.”
Since FY2016, the cost to teach English to non-English speaking students across Tennessee’s K-12 system has increased over 100 percent with over 16,000 students in MNPS in this category. In FY2017, MNPS proposed expanding its English learner program by adding more teachers, translators, after-school tutoring and summer programming.
With regard to the youngest non-English speaking children who may or may not have been born in the U.S., MNPS wants taxpayers to fund universal Pre-K and to teach non-English speaking children the language before they enter kindergarten:
In Metro Schools, students now hale from 145 countries, up from 120 just last year, and they speak more than 130 languages! More than a quarter of all Metro students speak a language other than English at home. The demand continues to grow and it is vital that we reach these students before they enter kindergarden. This is where the Casa Azafrán Early Learning Center will make its biggest impact.
The end goal of the program to make high-quality pre-K available to every four-year old in Nashville who wants it or needs it. As an added benefit, all of our Early Learning Centers are offered FREE OF CHARGE. As one mother said, her son would still be on Pre-K waiting lists if it was not for the opening of Casa Azafrán. She also says the greatest joy is seeing her husband, who speaks mostly Spanish, easily being able to communicate with his son’s teachers. The benefits for both students and families are endless.
It was reported that the teachers in Casa Azafran’s Pre-K classrooms speak Arabic, Kurdish and Spanish.
The most current information posted on the MNPS website indicates that fees may be charged on a sliding scale for some of the Pre-K programs and tuition assistance may also be available.
MNPS Public Information Officer Michele Michaud and MNPS Executive Communications representative Dawn Rutledge were contacted by The Tennessee Star one week ago and asked the following questions:
- Whether Metro’s Pre-K and Early Learning Center classrooms provide ELL services?
- If so, which ones have ELL teachers?
- Are any of the ELL services delivered by education assistants?
- How much money did MNPS spend to build out the space at Casa Azafran for the Early Learning Center?
- Was the money spent in 2013 or was the build-out and MNPS expenditure spread over several years?
- Does Metro pay an annual lease fee to Conexion Americas or another entity to use the space for students assigned there?
No information has been received from the MNPS representatives.
MNPS budget documents show that the leased build-out for the Pre-K classroom space at Casa Azafran was completed in FY2016.
The first Pre-K classrooms funded by MNPS at Casa Azafran included in the MNPS budget for $680,000 opened with 3 teachers, 3 education assistants and approximately 80 students. The following year staff was increased with 4 teachers, 5 education assistants and a school counselor. The cost that year rose to $791,800 but decreased slightly the following year to $739,500 but with 100 students.
The FY2018-2019 proposed MNPS budget includes $819,200 with 5 teachers and 5 education assistants but only 80 students.
Metro Nashville’s Pre-K classrooms in Casa Azafran share the building with political groups like the TN Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition which helped draft a proposed ordinance to make Nashville a sanctuary city, the American Muslim Advisory Council whose board member called the U.S. Constitution a document of white supremacy, and Justice For Our Neighbors that is recruiting lawyers to assist illegal aliens remain in Tennessee.
Soto and her organization Conexion Americas are seeking to exert more influence in the Metro public school system. In 2015, she was selected by then mayor Megan Barry to serve on a task force charged with finding a new director of schools. This year, after it was announced that the MNPS director of English Language Learners was leaving, Conexion’s senior director of education policy Gini Pupo-Walker along with political organizations housed at Casa Azafran, were part of a 21 member coalition requesting to participate in searching for and selecting a new ELL director.
The Tennessee Star reported yesterday that Conexion’s Gini Pupo-Walker has been endorsed by the SEIU in her bid for a seat on the Nashville School Board. Pupo-Walker oversees Conexion’s education equity project which has an interconnected relationship with GOP gubernatorial candidate Randy Boyd’s education non-profit “Complete Tennessee.”
In 2013, Nashville Real estate developer Bill Freeman, donated $100,000 to Casa Azafran’s capital campaign. At the time, it was considered the “largest donation by an individual made to Conexión Américas” until it was topped by Randy and Jenny Boyd’s $250,000 donation while Boyd was the Tennessee Commissioner of Economic & Community Development.
Freeman ran against Megan Barry in the 2015 Nashville mayoral election.
Freeman’s son Bob Freeman is the Democratic candidate running for Beth Harwell’s District 56 seat. He will run against the winner of the Republican primary between Brent Moody and Joseph Williams.