My Mom Had to Lie to Get Me Into a Good School

NoteThis post originally appeared on Education Post. After its publication I was contacted by several of my old teachers from Stanley, the elementary school my mom got me into. I am insanely thankful to Mrs. Anderson, Mrs. Winterhouse, Mrs. Bullock and all the staff from Stanley who taught me then and support and follow my work today. I was also contacted by classmates from Tacoma Montessori, which is how I got my hands on that dope class of '86 photo (Thanks Kati).  

I, like all Black Americans, am keenly aware of the gobsmacking contradictions that come with being Black in America.

Both of my parents fled the South in the 1960s to Washington State, roughly 20 years before I was born. I went through public school during the decline and eventual destruction of federally mandated school desegregation. For six years I proudly served in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, before leaving in 2003 in protest of the Iraq War. For a time, I was vice president of my college Republicans club. I hugged and lifted my teary-eyed mother off the ground, while my friends beat pots and pans in a spontaneous neighborhood parade on election night in 2008. I dabble from time-to-time in respectability politics, but believe vehemently that #BlackLivesMatter.

I am a 37-year-old Black male who teaches American government and politics at a school that is 80 percent students of color in a state that is roughly 80 percent White.

In my classroom, we spend a significant amount of time talking about the gaps between the values we espouse as a nation: liberty, justice, individualism, meritocracy and the reality that we witness on a daily basis: segregated schools, segregated housing, disproportionate law enforcement and sentencing, inequitable school funding, reduced life expectancy and other indicators of systemic racism.

This is the American dilemma: there is no other nation in the world where people who look like me do as well, yet no other nation has such a dogged and continued history of marginalizing and abusing those same folks. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of education.

As a young child, I was blessed to attend a phenomenal, private Montessori school for the early stages of my education. I have clear memories of sign language and Spanish lessons, hands-on science experiments about the physiology of a sunflower, and the shocking experience of seeing the chemical reaction when vinegar and baking soda are mixed for the first time.

I had a predictable routine. Every morning, my mother would drop me off at school on her way to work and every evening my grandmother would come and pick me up. Grandma and I would ride the #27 bus down MLK, past the bank and the local pool, back to her house where she would help me with my letters and numbers…then reading…then, as I aged, homework until my mother could pick me up and take me home for dinner.

This was my routine: mom, Montessori, slippers, learning, copious snacks, grandma, learning, mom, dinner, TV or reading (usually not TV), bed. Wash, rinse and repeat.

At the school, I also recall being one, along with my friend Sterling, of only two Black children. This was a harbinger of what was to come. As my neighborhood, Tacoma’s Hilltop, descended into drug-fueled gang violence in the 1980s, my school closed up shop and moved to whiter pastures, in a nearby suburb. The building remained vacant for years and at one point in my early adulthood, it was turned into a funeral home—a poignant reminder each time I passed by it.

My mother put me in the Montessori because she lacked faith in my neighborhood school. With my Montessori’s closure, my mother, ever resourceful, ever the advocate, went around the system. She lied. She used her church friend, Sister Crawford’s address, to get me enrolled at a school focused on the arts and sciences. I do not believe I would be the man I am—the teacher I am—without her lie.

But, in a nation as wealthy as America, no parent should have to lie about their address to get their child into a high-quality school. Sadly, I have heard this same tale from many, many other Black families. She did the same when it was time for me to go to high school. For my sake, she lied.

I think about this often when I stand before my own classroom today. What would Black parents say about my teaching and the way I treat their children? How do I best make my classroom a place where parents know their children are valued? How do I make my classroom a place where students feel safe and loved? How do I make my classroom instruction relevant to their lives and needs? These are the preconditions for effective teaching and learning. These are questions every educator should ask themselves every day.

As Washington State’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, I visited numerous schools and talked with hundreds of teachers across our state. My lone, lingering frustration from that experience is my anger at walking the halls of a school filled predominately with Brown students and happening on an International Baccalaureate (IB) history class that was Whiter than the Trump cabinet.

It is infuriating, but also painfully common. Students enrolled in Advanced Placement (AP) and IB classes are challenged to do college level work, while in high school, are statistically more likely to go onto college, and more likely be successful there. Denying children of color access to these classes—particularly at majority Brown schools—is an act of callous racial injustice, but also common practice across the country.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Throughout most of my life, the school where I teach was the lowest-performing high school in our district. That’s not the case anymore. We now graduate over 80 percent our students on time, over 45 percent of our kids are enrolled in an AP class. We are at capacity and have a waiting list to get into the school, despite the recent opening of a charter school nearby.

My AP classes are as diverse as the building itself and the neighborhood surrounding it. Last year nine starters from our football team, five of them Black males, passed the AP government exam—all of them are now in college. We’re living, breathing proof of what’s possible when we put our focus on the students.

District leadership has provided additional staffing and funding to our highest need schools. In my school we have a family support specialist—in others there are partnerships focused on keeping families in stable housing. I recently asked my mother, “Would you send me to McCarver [my old neighborhood school] today?” She replied, “Yes, yes I would.” This is a measure of progress we have made.

The fights in education shouldn’t be about models of schooling, but instead about the quality of the educational experience for the students. Kids of color and low-income students deserve great teachers, great schools, access to challenging courses and they shouldn’t have to lie to get them.


The Voice of Communities of Color and the Polarized Ed Debate

It hit me during a union meeting I attended this spring. There was a discussion underway about the opt-out movement (which I completely understand, even empathize with, but don’t really get down with) and how supportive our local association should be of it. An elementary teacher stood up and asked about the implications of students opting-out on building wide scores. For those not in education, students who do not test are counted as a zeroes when calculating building scores, as demonstrated in this image from a release from OSPI today.

After her question, there was some murmuring in the room and then someone stood up, walked to the mic, and said something (very thoughtfully and passionately) that basically came down “it is worth the collateral damage to the school if it helps get rid of the toxic tests.”

It hit me again on Tuesday night when I attended the Tacoma Branch of the NAACP’s Education Committee meeting. There was an obvious and palpable frustration with what they perceive as the lack of progress in our city in academic achievement and they were strategizing about how to activate the community in upcoming school board races.

It hit me a third time this morning while reading an loooong Twitter thread sparked by this post from @RealTalkGwenS (Gwen’s bio: “I am a PARENT lobbyist advocating for the Constitutional rights of parents. I do not negotiate the safety, education and overall well being of children.”)

I encourage you to read the resulting thread. It’s very illuminating of where I am going next.

Communities of color and people in poverty are more open to and interested in “substantial change in current educational practices and policies**” within public education because they feel a disproportionate burden of the inequality within the system. I believe this is why within the black community particularly, there are higher levels of support for things like testing (which I’ve written about here, here and here), charter schools (which I am indifferent to) and vouchers (which I strongly oppose). These communities do not see the achievement gap as a statistic or a talking point--it is a reality that often condemns their children to adulthoods filled with chronic un or underemployment, minimum wage jobs, an austere lifestyle and often incarceration.

Conversely, the vast majority of the educational establishment: teachers, principals, professors, non-prof EDs, legislators, their staffers, etc, come from middle class white families and have emerged from a system that largely a. valued them on their own terms, and b. met their cultural needs and expectations. People within the ed establishment have emerged successfully from a system designed by people like them, to create more people like them and often times they are blind (willfully or otherwise) to the rampant inequality within the system. Therefore, they are often strongly, sometimes vociferously, opposed to “substantial change in current educational practices and policies”. You don’t have to agree with what you just read, but it is with that understanding that I ask you to consider the following:

Meetings and conferences about education are consistently some of the most white spaces in our society. There’s more diversity on a country music singer’s tour bus than there is at most rallies, conferences, and workshops that I attend as a teacher. The few exceptions to this that jump to mind are the following:

  • Meetings put on by organizations created by people of color: the (aforementioned) NAACP education committee and Tacoma Pierce County Black Collective on a the local level come to mind
  • Events catering to classified (secretaries, office professionals, etc.) rather than certificated (teachers) staff
  • The annual NWTSJ Conference, a social justice educational conference that migrates up and down the I-5 corridor each year, here in Cascadia
  • School board meetings here in Tacoma, where there is a core of very involved parents and advocates
  • Meetings about charter schools

I want to focus on that last bullet for a moment.

Last year, my local union encouraged members to go out and speak at a public meeting at the local library where the state charter committee was hearing presentations from the applicants to open the first round of charter schools here in Tacoma. I am a charter agnostic: Charter supporters exaggerate their successes and opponents exaggerate their shortcomings. I work in my neighborhood public school, and have for the last six years, by choice. For a civics teacher and general government nerd, it was amazing theater. I couldn’t help but notice the dichotomy in the room: On one hand we had a very angry, verbose group of educators making very pointed (and accurate in most cases) critiques of each of the charter applicants and more often charter schools overall. On the other hand, there was a room full of parents, mostly of color, looking for alternatives for their children. They were looking for an alternative to a system that I am a part of--a system that they felt was not meeting their needs or the needs of their students. It was a sort of out of body experience, but one I am having with increasing regularity.

Too often for my tastes the self-proclaimed champions of public-ed are actually champions for the status quo, a status quo that is not serving communities of color, but has served them (the champions) and people from their class, neighborhood, listservs very well. This is particularly true in conversations about student data, where people long for days of yore when, when the achievement gap (particularly the performance of black students) was obscured by the power aggregate data. As someone who went through the same school system in which I now work, I can attest that students in school now are graduating at higher rates, having taken more rigorous coursework and receiving more academic support on career and college planning and transition than they did before the current “reform era”. However, most of the credit for these improvements is a result of the work of largely anonymous, but ever present people in the community demanding change to the system--not a national reform agenda.

Conversely, the reformers try to impose their agendas, solutions and policies on communities they themselves haven’t and wouldn’t dare step foot in. In many cases the reformers are right about many of the problems in K-12, but communities don’t trust them or their pre-fabricated (one size fits all) solutions: standardization, reducing protections for teachers and ed tech quick fixes (techno-triumphalism).

I say all this because as an educator of color, one who is passionate about justice and improving outcomes for my community, the US (“public ed advocates”) vs THEM (“reformers”) dynamic is unhelpful (at best). It creates factions and is destructive of trust within the profession and causes the vast, vast, vast majority of educators stay on the sidelines. At least once a month (often more), I talk to amazing, highly regarded and thoughtful educators who “just can’t be bothered with the whole (ed policy) thing” because it is so polarized and toxic. But, if thoughtful, solutions oriented educators are discouraged from engaging in the ed space, what are we left with?

It’s the worst kind of negative feedback loop imaginable.

**I am intentionally not using the term “reform”, which has become a pretty specific and predictable brand.