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Jamaal A. Bowman is the principal of the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action in New York City.
Back to School 2017: An Open Letter to Black and Latino Public School Parents
I hope this letter finds you and your loved ones in good health and good spirits. I write to you as a Black man in America, and educator of almost 20 years. I grew up lower middle class to a single mom in the upper east side/east Harlem section of New York City. I have worked my entire career with Black and Latino students in K-12 settings throughout the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan in New York City. I have experience working in both district and charter schools, and I attended public schools throughout my entire life.
I humbly write this letter to you as a call to action. There is a crisis in public education that mirrors the crisis in our country. The actions of the white supremacists in Charlottesville Virginia, are not unique to protesting the removal of a confederate leader’s statue. The thinking that drives the actions of these racists and bigots exist covertly throughout our public schools – as it does throughout American society.
Our schools are financially starved. If you are a Black or Latino child in this country, you are more likely to attend a “Title I” school. Title I schools receive additional federal funding to offset the impact of poverty in downtrodden communities. At present, Donald Trump and Secretary of Education, Betsy Devos are looking to reduce federal funding by $9 billion, which directly devastates Black and Latino children. Despite the additional Title I funding poor schools have received since 1965, schools in wealthy districts with high property taxes are able to outspend Title I schools by roughly two to one. This is one example of how racism exists within our current education policy.
Because of this financial oppression, parents throughout the country have been fighting back. In 1993, New York parents led by Robert Jackson, began a 13-year legal battle against the state of New York. The judge ruled that the state’s awful education spending was preventing a “sound and basic education” for our most vulnerable children. The parents won the lawsuit! However, as we are 11 years removed from the court’s decision, the majority of the money has yet to be paid to our mostly Black and Latino children. As a result, our children continue to underperform, drop-out, and receive school suspensions at rates much higher than white and Asian children. In this way, governments throughout the country remain complicit in keeping the school to prison pipeline amongst Black and Latino children thriving, while the racial economic and opportunity gaps continue to persist.
Further, Black and Latino history and culture is almost completely absent from public school policy and curriculum. As a result, America’s children learn almost nothing about the contributions of Black and Latino culture to civilization. This fact contributes to the ongoing misunderstanding, disrespect, and xenophobia that exist toward Black and Latino youth. While children of European descent continue to be recognized and celebrated in our public schools, Black and Latino history remains nonexistent. Unless implemented secretly at the school level, students are not taught about Kush, Timbuktu and Kemit, or the modern contributions of Black and Latino authors, mathematicians, and scholars. If Black and Latino children learned of their contributions to the cradle of civilization, one could only imagine the growth in their self-esteem, self-confidence, and contribution to the advancement of present day society.
Discussing Latino students specifically, and particularly English language learners, the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) calls for the tracking of how well English language learners perform on English standardized tests. Of course, it is important for Latinos to learn English. However, the unintended consequences of a policy like this involves the nonuse of the Spanish language among Latino Americans; while also suppressing other aspects of Latino culture. Bilingual education and dual language programs have suffered as a result. Under contemporary education policy, Latino lives don’t matter. The belief of many policymakers and corporate education reformers is one of English supremacy. If you are in America you should “speak American”. What’s implied here is the inferiority of Latino culture. Instead of celebrating the diversity of Latino citizens, Latinos are marginalized and forced to abandon parts of their culture. This creates enduring conflict and contributes to the social and political strife we see today. Latino students, particularly English language learners, suffer greatly in our public school system.
To save our children, we need a paradigm shift toward a more holistic education system. Holistic education includes more than just a single school. It involves the school working as part of a community based structure that incorporates, healthcare, higher education, local businesses, and a variety of community based organizations. A holistic education nurtures the whole mind, whole child, whole family, and whole community; while embracing America’s dynamic cultural diversity as an invaluable resource.
Black and Latino families must demand a holistic education for all children, in every school district in America.
From an “academic” perspective, public school policy dictates that if a child is “proficient” on an English and math state test, that child is considered in good academic standing. Many would argue that this is based on a limited view of intelligence. Researchers for decades have identified multiple intelligences as necessary for a holistic curriculum. The ability to build and sustain healthy relationships, the ability to self-reflect, perform musically, engage with nature, dance and play sports, all represent talents that are mostly ignored in our school system. Why aren’t we nurturing these talents in all schools? I fear that continuing to overlook the multiple intelligences in our children, will deprive generations to come of artists like Celia Cruz, and Duke Ellington, entrepreneurs like Nasir Jones, and technicians like Carlos Santillan.
Private schools, on the other hand, tend to implement a vast and deep curriculum. Private school children work on authentic projects, in the creative arts, and engage in humanistic learning methodologies like Paideia, Reggio Emilio and Maria Montessori. While private school children are nurtured to reach their full potential as leaders, public school children are trained in subordinate thinking. This structure of inequality maintains the vast economic and cultural divide that has existed throughout America history.
By continuing to implement a basic, so-called “rigorous” curriculum, public schools facilitate racist policies and communicate low expectations for our children. In public schools, our goal is simply to make Black and Latino students the best English and math test-takers they can be; not to build creative critical thinkers and real-world problem solvers. Black and Latino families should be wary of the overuse of words like accountability, and of policymakers that advocate only annual standardized testing in English and math. Most of these policymakers send their children to the private schools described above. This is not an accident, and this will not change unless Black and Latino parents come together, organize, speak up, and speak out against both the overt and implicit racism that plagues the children in our schools.
It is time for us to demand more from teachers, principals, school boards, elected officials and policymakers. We are in the middle of an education revolution, and I am calling for ALL Black and Latino families to be involved.
Consider how the opt-out movement demanded change as one voice by refusing state standardized tests. This forced a stoppage to certain education policies in New York State. This movement, organized by the New York State Allies for Public Education, continues to impact education policy in New York State and across the country.
We can also learn a lot from the great work that the Alliance for Quality Education (AQE), the Coalition for Education Justice (CEJ), and Journey for Justice (J4J) have done for Black and Latino families in particular. AQE, CEJ, and J4J fight everyday against the privatization of public schools and the closing of neighborhood schools. Their fight also includes a push for culturally relevant curriculum and equitable education funding. Because of these outstanding grassroots organizations, elected officials are much more responsive to parent and community demands. But we need more voices in the fight. What might we collectively accomplish if we demanded the resources that nurture the strengths and diversity of our children? What if policymakers heard from Black and Latino parents and students daily, and we used our political leverage to have those that ignore us removed from office?
Our children are suffering daily as their voices, ideas, and cultures are suppressed. Even the children that get good grades are graduating high school less engaged than ever. Public education policy, both directly and indirectly teach Black and Latino children that their lives only matter insofar as they can serve the needs of the system that oppresses them. There are many Black and Latino students who graduate high school and refuse to attend college because they are emotionally debilitated. School has made them numb. Many who attend college do not finish because they do not see a bigger purpose in higher education. Because America continues to neglect our highest need communities and families, millions of kids never reach basic proficiency, nor do they get close to reaching their full potential.
Black and Latino parents must also act upon the unjust fact that the schools and districts that are celebrated for their work with Black and Latino children, invest substantially more resources than the average school district. Unfortunately, most Black and Latino public school districts continue to be starved and underserved. That will change as soon as WE ALL come together, demand equitable funding, resist the privatization of our schools, demand a culturally relevant curriculum, and build a holistic community based school system.