Sep 15

Black Students Matter

[Articles informing this piece — The Black Family in the Age of Incarceration by Ta-Nehisi Coates and Will School Discipline Reform Really Change Anything by Melinda Anderson.]

If the last year has taught America anything, it’s that, as a nation, we have to admit that we’re nowhere near as far along in working toward racial equity as we’d like to believe ourselves to be. And as educators, we have to own that our institution – school – is part of that larger society. And as such, the schools that we love too often reinforce the inequity that we see in society at large. Whether it is the unequal rates of suspension or the unequal access to advanced classes — to name two examples — we have to own that our schools do not serve black students as well as they serve white students.

We have to be able to say that. We have to be able to own it. Because if we don’t, we will never be able to fix it.

There are parts of this that we will need help to do — inequitable and unequal funding remains, to my mind, the single most anti-democratic policy in this country — but there is plenty we can do inside our own schools and classrooms.

As educators, we have to be willing to examine every policy from the lens of equity. When we ask ourselves – with everything we do, from seating charts to grading policies to the content we teach – “Will this reinforce or lessen the inequities the black students in my class face in our society?” then we demand of ourselves actions that make our classrooms and our schools more equitable and honorable places.

And when we do so out loud, sharing our thoughts with our colleagues, with our students, engaging in reflective practice about how and why we make the choices we make, we engage others in our process, increasing the possibility that we won’t make the mistakes of hubris, thinking that we know best because, after all, we’re the teachers. Asking others, thinking together, coming from a place of inquiry helps us to see our own blind spots Because thinking about equity – and our role, unwitting or not, in reinforcing that inequity – is painful. It forces us, as teachers, to question the very thing we hold dear – our ability to positively impact the lives of the all of the children in our care.

If we are to learn from the world around us, then let this be the year that we examine our own house and commit to examining our policies, procedures and actions through the twin lenses of racial equity and racial justice. Let us make sure that the pieces of school that are within our control are just, fair and right, so that we are worthy of the best hopes of the students we teach. Let us understand that our best hopes of the American Dream has never been fully realized for black America, and let us understand that, despite the efforts of many caring educators, that has been true of our schools as well. And let this be the year that, with open eyes and intentionality, we seek to right that wrong, because, indeed, black students matter.


Dec 23

Poverty, College and A Dream Deferred

[Influencing this Post: For Many Poor Students, Leap to College Ends in a Hard Fall.]

The New York Times had an amazing front page long-form story today about how three young women who grew up in poverty in Galveston, TX struggled with the transition to college. All three women were excellent high school students who should thrive at the next phase of their life. Those girls are the kids that a high school puts their faith in. At SLA, approximately half of our student population come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and many of our students will be the first in their family to either go to college or complete college.

But what is scary is how many students who struggle with staying in college. We have heard story after story of SLA kids who found that a college changed their financial aid or how a raise in tuition meant more loans or how the hustle it took to earn scholarships for 1st year was hard to duplicate once in college. We joke around about providing the Extra Care Card to SLA alumni so that they know they can still use us as a resource in college and we spend a lot of time in senior year Advisory on preparing kids for what they will face in college and overwhelmingly, SLA kids do navigate the challenges, but the reality is that, for many kids of poverty, there is little safety net once they get to college.

This is the problem that KIPP faced when they realized that only 32% of their graduates were also graduating from college. This is what we – as a magnet school – fear when we sit down with parents in January and help them fill out FAFSA forms and then again in April when we go over financial aid packages. And again, we’re a magnet school with a college-going culture that can prepare kids for some of these challenges, and I don’t think we’ve come close to solving this problem – merely mitigating it to the best of our ability.

And let’s understand this — this problem affects kids well before they ever get to college. Every kid in an economically challenged neighborhood in Philadelphia knows someone like those girls – the kid who did everything right and still ended up on the block, thousands and thousands of dollars in debt, without a degree and struggling to get by. The dream of a college education as the ticket out of poverty is dying a faster death in our cities than policy makers and college presidents want to admit.

And if that dream dies, we’re in trouble as a nation. As the New York Times article suggests, we are dangerously close to a permanent underclass in America, and as the idea of class mobility fades, we face questions that I don’t think we want to face. It was over eighty years ago that Langston Hughes wrote A Dream Deferred:

What happens to a dream deferred?


Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?


Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.


Or does it explode?

Perhaps it is time we all take heed.