When I was a middle school teacher, I found myself praying for the protection and wellness of my students on the regular. For all the great times we had in the classroom, the kids, the majority of whom were black, were up against a lot outside those four walls: institutionalized racism, peer pressure and even violence in the neighborhood.
But the stakes were just as high inside the school building. Which is why “it takes a village” was the motto for working with parents to ensure our kids succeeded.
As conference season approaches and first quarter report cards come in, there is much more on the line than whether our children have gotten good grades.
Supporting black children in today’s America is more critical than ever.
We sought advice from some leading black educators and advocates about what to ask as you prepare to head to your child’s school. Whether you’re a pro at advocating or are new to the school system, you can set your babies up to win.
1) What’s the best way for us to stay in touch?
Sometimes it’s a text. Other times it’ll be a Facebook post or email. However you connect with a teacher, be sure you have direct access and can reach them anytime there is a concern or need. It’s your right to be in touch with the person who is often with your child up to 8 hours a day.
“We always wait to November when we have Parents Night to have our first interaction with the teacher and with the school, and by that time their opinions are formed on the students perception,” says Christopher Emdin, Associate Director of the Institute for Urban and Minority Education at the Columbia University Teachers College.
“The earlier in the academic year that we have a conversation with the teacher, the more the teachers understand who the parents are,” he continues.
“There is a perception that there is some apathy if [teachers] haven’t connected with you but it’s because the school is not structured in a way that allows you to be able to interact with a teacher beforehand.”
By asking for office hours, a phone number to text or times when parents are welcome to visit, you make regular contact an expectation.
“The way the teacher interacts with the student from the beginning of the school year going forward- you’ll be surprised on how that is affected by the initial interaction they had with the parent and how in depth that conversation is initially.”
“Don’t be afraid to be present,” says Emdin.
2) What do you see in my child? (And what can I tell you about them?)
“When I ask you ‘What do you see in my child?’ It forces you to do a deeper level of thinking,” says Charles Cole III, an education advocate, writer and founder of Energy Convertors. “It’s not just what you answer, it’s how you answer that gives me a lot of implication.”
“No matter how many degrees educators have, parents and families are experts on their children, “says Sharif El-Mekki, a veteran school principal, father of six and founder The Fellowship a Philadelphia-based organization which recruits black men to become teachers. “Sometimes families think they are coming in as empty vessels but they are experts.”
El-Mekki suggests parents use their expertise to proactively share information with teachers about what works (and doesn’t work) for their children.
“Educators have to see children individually, for who they are with their strengths and challenges.”
3) What’s my child’s reading level?
It doesn’t matter if the teacher is teaching English or Science, literacy is needed in nearly every subject. Researchers insist by the time low income children are 3 years old, many are left hearing 30 million fewer words than their higher income counterparts.
If your child isn’t on reading level, you need to know what to do to help catch them up. If they already are, ask how to challenge them to advance because #blackexcellence.
“Mothers that I’ve worked with or parents, they assume (which they should) that ‘If my child has an A or a high mark, that my child is proficient in whatever you gave him or her a A in.’ But that’s not true. A child can get straight A’s and be behind in math proficiency and English proficiency.”
“For a lot of parents, we just believe our children to be really smart and that is great but often times when we are met with challenges or our kids having a challenge, we’re not sure how to navigate the system, or do it quickly,” says Tenicka Boyd, National Director of the Leaders of Color Initiative (DFER) and mother to an 11-year-old daughter.
“I always access Columbia Teachers College to see what’s the reading level that’s appropriate for my child’s grade,” says Boyd.
4) What are your goals for the quarter?
“When you ask those type of questions it lets that professor know: 1. This parent respects my craft 2. Cares about their child 3. I’m gonna have to be able to give them some type of answer,’” says Cole. “It’s the coded language, which activates them and lets them know you’re about to be holding them accountable in a different kind of way.”
“Ask, what is the expectation that teachers should have for students?” asks Boyd. “I look at the homework level. Are they getting too little? Are they getting too much homework a night? If so that’s also a cause of concern because that mean the teacher wasn’t able to get through the material in a day.”
Boyd and her husband found themselves frustrated after applying to public middle schools in New York City for their daughter. None of the schools they listed as their top choices were offered to them as an option.
Although Boyd says the school where her daughter was initially placed was racially diverse, they didn’t appear to hold students to the high standards she expected.
After going through the appeals process to find another school placement, Boyd says the family discovered an independent day school with sliding scale tuition, which met their needs.
“There are other options out there,” says Boyd. “My only regret is that I didn’t start to look at it sooner.”
5) How are you teaching black children about their history and culture?
With schools expelling students for sitting during the pledge of allegiance or doling out controversial homework assignments, it’s important to know where your child’s school stands on addressing the current political climate, in addition to issues of race.
“You’re educating black children to live reside and confront life in America,” says El-Mekki of teachers today. “It doesn’t just mean getting caught up on ‘We don’t agree with Trump’ because by the time they grow up, Trump won’t be in office- but racism, etc will still be around.”
Emdin, who is also the author of “For White Folks Who Teach In the Hood…and the Rest of Us Too,” says addressing cultural competency is important whether your child attends a school with predominantly black children or is a racial minority.
“It’s okay to ask, ‘What is going on pedagogically day to day in the classroom that connects to my child’s experience?’ “For them, the school becomes ‘multicultural’ because your black child is present. But to really truly engage in multicultural work requires them actually creating programs in place to make sure the child feels connected.”
Movies like Hidden Figures are a prime example of black academic excellence in a wide variety of subjects.
“The opportunity for us to have these sort of cultural connections exist more in the social sciences or in history but are absent in math and science,” says Emdin. “So what kind of work are we doing to ensure that the students see themselves in full subject areas?
“Because traditionally that’s how we underperform the most and it is solely because of the absence of these cultural components and role models.”
6) How do you approach discipline?
Across the country there are disproportionate suspension rates for black students, with states like Missouri reporting black students are four times as likely to be suspended as white students.
Emdin says it’s important to find out where your child’s teacher stands and the school district at large.
“What are the breakdowns of students of color suspension and expulsion rates in the school district? How do you ensure that that’s not being replicated in the school? Because they will always say, ‘That is the district and not us.’”
“You don’t have an opportunity to be able to argue back against these sort of like institutional racist practices in schools if you don’t come to the table with statistical evidence to support the fact that the school is part of its problem,” says Emdin.”
Sharif El-Mekki says inquiring about an individual teacher’s discipline program and discipline philosophy is important.
“How do you maintain the dignity of a child? Ask that proactively,” advises El-Mekki. “If my child makes a mistake, which they likely will, how do you handle it?”
“Do you celebrate learning from mistakes? If a child gets an answer, how do you help them learn, whether academic or personal?
It may not be in the parent handbook, but knowing how educators who are in front of our kids 8-9 hours a day answer this is important. How are they going to leave more whole and healed?”
7) Where can I connect with other parents?
This one may be more of a question for yourself but is equally important to find out. Some parents have started organizations like The Black Parents Workshop in South Orange, NJ, in order to ensure black children have the resources they need.
“I always ask my more socially economically advantaged parents, what kind of networking opportunities are there for other black parents or other parents of color to be able to communicate,” says Emdin.
Through organizing, you have more power- to hold schools accountable and do good by looking out for each others’ children.
Shirlee Smith, a parent advocate in Pasadena, CA, who raised five children as a single parent (all of whom she says graduated college), says parents must be their greatest advocate and cheerleader.
“Our children don’t get the same things. Most black folks know, we are shortchanged,” says Smith. “I’m talking about the families they call ‘at-risk.’ They are only at risk because they don’t know what to demand.”
“In order for our kids to move forward, not only do we have to advocate, we have to advocate loudly,” says Smith. “We have to be the one that sets the tone.”