This piece originally ran at Huffington Post.
Yesterday, I visited a beautiful inspirational, fairly new high school in New Haven Connecticut called Amistad, an Achievement First charter school. The school design has distinguished adult figures etched throughout the exterior and interior of the school: Cesar Chavez, Mexican American labor leader and civil rights activist, who, with Dolores Huerta, co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, Barack Obama, the first African American President of the United States, Maya Angelou, an African American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist, Dr. Ben Carson, an African American retired neurosurgeon, and Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court, just to name a few.
It’s important also to note that Achievement First Amistad High School was rankedthe third-best school in the state by U.S. News & World Report.
Displayed on the front of the school in big Blue and Red letters are the words EDUCATION=FREEDOM. Yet, in the weeks leading up to May 31,2016, on the inside of Amistad High School there has been a pot brewing of everything but sentiments of freedom. According to some of the students, majority Black and brown, they see it as more like EDUCATION=CONFORMITY.
On May 31, 2016, in the third largest urban district in the state of Connecticut, a few hundred majority black and brown high school students made it known quite clearly through what has been described as a “mass walk-out“ to show that “diversity matters” in public education. Their words and actions are further evidence that the youth are game changers in the conversations about Education, especially as it relates to students of color. In fact, the students made it clear that the youth voice, not only matters, but that it demands to be respected and taken seriously.
As I learned more and more about this student led “boycott” through numerous calls and texts throughout the day, I, as a black parent leader, began to reflect on the role of the parent in public education. Parents are the first responders in the lives of their children to ensure their safety, education and overall well-being; that being said, the protest at Amistad this week showed me that student voice must be interwoven into all education reform efforts. We, the parents and adults have an obligation to ensure that the youth have access to the tools and supports needed to effectively advocate for themselves, especially if they are students of color who may reside in low-income neighborhoods.
As I began to write this blog, I came across a piece just written this week by Raymond Ankrum, a principal who blogs at Urban EdTalk. The piece, “Keeping Scholars Engaged in Teaching and Learning”, reflects so many of the same exact sentiments expressed by the scholars of Amistad High School during an evening meeting they had with Achievement First co-founder Dacia Toll and staff. The meeting was arranged in response to the protest earlier in the day so that students could personally share their concerns with the administrative decision makers of the school. If I didn’t know better, I would believe that Mr. Ankrum was in the room with us!
From Mr. Ankrum’s blog
1. Build authentic connections with students. Students learn from the people they know care about them. If you care, show your students by being tough on them. Be consistent with your students, and be present in their lives. Do not make assumptions about your students. Simply meet them where they are. “More recently, Dantas and Coleman’s (2010) study addressed the complexity of diverse families’ lives and also illustrated how miscommunication between teacher, school and families from all backgrounds can lead to teachers’ own reality and perceptions being influenced by their ‘uninformed assumptions’ (p. 170).”
2. Just because you are qualified to teach doesn’t mean that you are qualified to teach me. A four-year degree, and passing pedagogical tests do not qualify you to teach, at least in my opinion. It takes more. It takes a willingness to continuously improve, challenging yourself year in and year out. “In addition to the many challenges associated with educating students living in poverty, the teachers in these schools are generally less experienced and have much higher rates of attrition (Ingersoll, 2004).” Show your students you want to be there, and stay, “ride or die” with the students, in other words do not be afraid to overly commit to your students.
3. Find out what your students are interested in, and build your lessons around their interest. It takes very little time and/or creativity to change a word problem to reflect what’s happening in the lives of students. Students should be able to take learned skills from the classroom and make that learning adaptable to real life situations. “Instructional modifications that involve individual interest necessarily involve prior knowledge—learners are likely to have high prior knowledge about their interests (Renninger et al., 2002).”
4. Have frank and honest conversations with students about high expectations. Having high expectations for students should be a classroom normality. In urban areas, some of these students have been a part of cyclical generational poverty. That cycle can end by showing students the importance of education and instilling passion into student learning. “Culturally responsive teaching offers ways to best support diverse learners in an inclusive classroom as it approaches education by looking at the whole child where students are empowered intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes (Ladson-Billings, 2009).”
The bottom line for me after really listening to the many voices of these courageous youth is simple. They are the consumers of education and their voices are missing from the conversations about their education. And no, I don’t mean “symbolic student involvement” – we already have that. I mean creating actual professional and curriculum development with students at the helm, I am talking engagement which, if done effectively leads to relationship building!
And by the way, this is not about Achievement first charter “bashing” as some will inevitably say; the school is definitely doing something right, it ranks 3rd in the state!
How many traditional public schools, in urban communities can say that in Connecticut?
We are the wealthiest state in the nation, so money is not our problem, we have a heart condition – just saying.
The reality is diversity in the teaching profession is a national crisis as well as a Connecticut crisis. And it took the courage of scholars of Amistad high school in New Haven to let the adults know – this is NOT about the aspirations of ADULTS, it’s about the future and the dreams of our students of color whose ability and potential dispel myths about Black youth every single day.
Some quotes from the day
As a Black mom, I thought it important to share with you some of the Amistad High School youth voices and other voices from the field because it was clear their actions identified with Angela Davis “I’m no longer accepting the things I cannot change…I’m changing the things I cannot accept.”
Messiah, Amistad 10th Grade (one of the lead organizers)
People say [our protest] was a walk out, but we never walked in [the school] we began to direct students to the bleachers in the back of the school when they got off the school bus at7:25am”
Kordell, Amistad 11th Grade (one of the lead organizers)
“I find the demerit system to be a strict code of conduct for scholars and its used out of context. It’s the same one used in Achievement First elementary schools. I feel as we get older the demerit system should adjust. I am an articulate young man in High School and I don’t want to be treated as a child. I feel the demerit system is used as a conformity tool on minority students by white officials or white administration.”
[As it relates to the protest] certain students were afraid to advocate for their rights when they realized there were consequences such as you can’t use the bathroom in the school, we will not give you lunch or water, you cannot ride the school bus back home, however I felt that any consequence was as good as the outcome in the long run. I felt if push comes to shove they would find it in their heart to give us water. Plus, the parents helped and gave us water”
Diva Carter, (Rising Senior)
“This all started because we heard that one of the staff members was not given a contract for her to sign to come back next year. This angered Scholars and Parents because we all have a connection with her. So one of my friends came up with an idea to protest because we don’t have diversity at all. We don’t just want Black and Hispanics, we want people with Asian background, Native American backgrounds etc. We have some minority staff but these black males are only for discipline. We want these types of teachers in the classroom! Not just with skin color but with age also. Teachers come to this job fresh out of college, stay for two years then leave because they are still so young. This isn’t good for our school community because if this continues to happen, who is going to write letters of recommendation for the seniors. A teacher you known for a year. No. We want to be able to build connections with our teachers. We want diversity, and we want it NOW!”
Anonymous, Amistad 10th grade
“When I just went into the meeting one of the board said it’s hard to find an African American Teacher but the school pushes us to work hard, so why give up on finding a Black teacher, so push yourself hard to find a Black teacher”
Janya, Meriden CT 9th grade
“We learned about this protest in our literature class in school as we watched CNN Kids web series and I believe students in other schools should do the same thing as these kids did to show that we as students know and understand our rights. In our middle school we only had two Black teachers, and both were males. I would like to see Black female and Hispanic teachers too”
Parent and Role Model Voices from the Field
“I think that the kids are speaking out loud and we need to listen to them. Diversity is a must. The school is a good school there just needs to be stability – Venetia, Mother of Diva Carter
“We as parents and adults must respect what the kids are advocating for because we don’t know exactly how they feel because we are not living what they are living in the classroom.” Santia, Mother of an Amistad student
“From the outside of the school you see the faces of our ancestors but I feel it’s misleading because the leadership of the school is not representative of the community in which many of the youth live. I firmly believe there needs to be more teacher accountability not just in academics but how they interact with our children. I feel the school militarizes the youth for them to be all one way versus recognizing and embracing their differences” Greer, Mother of Tionna
“It inconceivable how these students of color are harshly sanctioned for something as minute as requesting to use the restroom, which is on an individual human clock and not some school policy.” Ms. Lynda, Great-grandmother of New Haven school-age children
“What those young scholars have done speaks volumes! It should be a wakeup call to all! I urge folks to let this be a reminder that students are the people directly affected by the decisions that politicians, unions and organizations make on their behalf. Their voices must be included in the discourse on education. It’s critical that we stop doing “to” communities and instead act “with” them.” Rashanda, New Haven Parent
“What transpired at Amistad on Tuesday and me being the Alderperson of that ward, I took away from this experience, one thing. The team [administrators] makes the dream [students] work by listening to them.” New Haven Alder Brenda- Foskey-Cyrus Ward 21
“Justice Delayed is Justice Denied” Anjie, Office Coordinator