Black Lives Matter in School, Too

Black Lives Matter in School, Too

(Image: Carlos Eliason)
(Image: File)

The good news is it doesn’t have to be this way. Over the last 10 years, breakthroughs at the school and district level have shown that systemic change that radically improves academic outcomes for black children is possible. Whether it’s Steve Perry’s Capitol Prep in Hartford, Connecticut, which serves mostly poor and minority children and sends 100% of its young black male graduates to college; or Eric Mahmoud’s Harvest Prep Charter School in Minneapolis, which serves predominantly low-income African American youth and boasts reading and math scores well above the local district and statewide averages; or Tim King’s Urban Prep High School in Chicago, where the student body is composed of 100% African American males and all seniors are accepted to college–many with generous scholarships and grants to attend our nation’s most prestigious universities, we are now seeing schools in urban communities that value young black lives by providing these students with the education they need to succeed in college and life.

One reason for optimism is that all three of the examples above are schools or systems founded and run by black men who have a keen focus on serving African American youth. Their motivation goes beyond the desire to simply see kids in good schools. It stems from their knowledge that what they do every day is, quite literally, a matter of life and death. If they can educate their students at the highest levels, the likelihood of the students’ graduating from high school, going to college, and working at a well-paying job increases dramatically. And the likelihood of becoming a teen parent or ending up behind bars decreases. Steve, Eric, and Tim know that their jobs are about valuing each black life that comes through the doors of their school buildings, because the consequences of ineffectiveness are dire.

While we have these models to show that different outcomes are possible for our children, I do not mean to imply that the work is easy. These leaders have their students in school for a longer school day and school year; they have high and unrelenting expectations for student behavior and effort; they’ve put together teams of highly effective and committed teachers; and they require parents to be dedicated to their children’s education.

It’s clear that our nation must engage in new (and undoubtedly uncomfortable) conversations about police, race, and community. Equally necessary and important are the discussions that must take place about how our nation’s public schools are systematically underserving too many of our African American children. Just as there are many who push back on the “real” race conversations out of a misguided belief that we’re living in a post-racial society, there are many who will resist school reform and insist that our nation’s public schools are doing just fine because their own local schools seem to be serving their students well.

We must fight against this belief that the status quo is working to prepare all our youth to succeed in college, career, and life. We must question the notion that the problems in education are those of poverty and parenting alone (though they certainly have an impact). We must push to create an environment in which every family, regardless of its zip code, has the opportunity to send its children to a high-performing school.

One clear and powerful way to change the trend in our nation of devaluing black lives is to invest in significantly reforming our nation’s public schools. When we allow our children to languish in dropout factories with no hope of a better future, we’re making a demoralizing value statement. However, when we provide children the opportunity to succeed in life by giving them a high quality education, we send them the strongest message we can about our belief in their potential. So, the question is: Are we, as African Americans, willing to have that difficult conversation about the real value we put on the lives of our youth?