Creating Community for Black Children in Schools

I am a Black parent. So, by definition, I am an educator. As I write about education I am always taken back to two experiences in my life. The first experience is pleasant and contributed to who I am today. As a child I was fortunate to know Linda Brown, the student who was the center of the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education. As my piano teacher in Topeka, Kansas, Ms. Brown instilled in me the importance of education and the importance of advocacy in education. The second experience is not so pleasant, but it, too, contributed to who I am today. One day, while in the third grade, my son was enjoying playing in the Michigan snow a little more than he should. As a result, he didn’t immediately respond to the playground aide’s request to come inside. Not being ready to come inside, he did what kids do – he kept playing in the snow! In response to this behavior, the aide called him an “idiot.” When my child informed me of the incident, not only did I remove my son from that school, but I took myself to law school and decided that I had work to do to continue the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education.

Schools are much more than places where reading, writing, and arithmetic are learned. Schools are places where students develop a sense of self, security, and an understanding of their place in the world. Yet, schools can be hostile places for Black children. We sometimes hide this fact about Black children by talking about “students of color.” While that terminology is appropriate in some instances, its overuse can lead to ignoring issues that are specific to Black children; it is how inclusion can result in erasure.

As with everything we do and discuss at Harriet Speaks, this article is focused on Black people. Why? That was a trick question. One should not have to justify why they are focusing on Black children, Black adults, Black gay people, Black unemployment, or anyone Black. There are countless instances in life where we advocate for a particular group and/or cause without having to explain it. We will be an inclusive society when we no longer require a justification to have conversations that do not focus on whiteness. Because white is the societal norm, this focus can also occur by being disguised as conversations about ‘everyone’. Non-Black people interested in racial equity will see the importance of having a black-specific conversation, and will become increasingly comfortable with whiteness not being centered. I encouraged those people to read, consider, and implement what I am sharing here. Now that I have your attention, let’s continue talking about Black students.

There are issues unique to Black students in education. The achievement gap between Black and white students is common knowledge. However, high achieving Black students (and they do exist) are less likely to be placed in gifted education programs. While underrepresented in gifted and talented programs, Black children (especially boys) are overrepresented in special education programs. A thorough discussion of the disproportionality of Black children in special education and the resulting harms can be found here.

On another front, Black boys and girls are seen as older, and less innocent than other children. This perception robs Black children of the childhood that so many others have by right. A recent study by Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality found that adults see Black girls as “needing less nurturing, support, and protection than white girls.” This thinking leads to the school-prison-pipeline. These are just a few of the issues in schools that have a significant impact on Black children.

One of the most important ways to improve outcomes for Black school children is having more Black teachers in classrooms. The Department of Education recently reported in “The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce” that the teaching profession is 82% white. This fact prevents all students from having the benefits of teachers who can prepare them to live and work in a diverse society.

We can support the urgent need for Black teachers and at the same time ask, “What else can we do?” Answering this question requires acknowledging one overlooked fact: teachers are not the only people in our schools who can have an impact on children. So, while we grapple with increasing diversity among educators, what if we looked to a group of employees who are currently in schools and who reflect our community?

Non-teaching and/or support staff in schools are important. They have the ability to make a difference in lives of students. This category includes bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria staff, playground aides, teachers’ aides and more. The people in these roles are overwhelmingly Black. They can be voices of support, love, and encouragement to all children, but particularly to Black children in schools who seldom see adults who look like them. But, we miss this additional resource for Black children because we have rendered this group of people invisible. As a society, we have allowed the rarely discussed ism of rankism interfere with our shared and paramount desire to ensure our children are loved and encouraged from the village of all of us. As a people, when Black folks are complicit in the marginalization of support staff, many who look like us, it is another example of how class continues to divides us and we mimic the actions of the dominate culture. We can choose another way. We can create community.

Amazing things can happen if we train and invite more people in these roles to be adult advocates – we can create community, we can create more Percy Herder’s. Percy’s story is a good one. Percy Herder is a school custodian in Pennsylvania who was recognized by his school as a hero during a Black History Month celebration. One of the teachers said, “In his quiet way, he has changed the lives of so many people.” The school principal said, “Everyday, we have a hero in our midst…he impacts our community day in and day out.”

All children benefit from a Mr. Herder in their midst – and especially Black children. What if we were more intentional about creating these individuals, empowering them to speak life into our children? What if we invited support staff to play a positive role in our children’s lives when/if they interact with them during the day? What if we said to support staff, “You are somebody and our children need you to speak life into them in a hostile environment”? What if members of support staff were included in African-American Parent Association events and the like? What could this teach our children about having respect for all people? What could this do related to staff turnover in these critical roles? What does this say about inclusion being more than a word in schools?

As parents (and educators) one of the things we encourage our children to do in the education process is to use all resources available to them. Ask for help! Talk to your teacher! Use the internet! Work with a group! These are just a few of the things that my child has heard me say over and over, and I am sure your children have, too. But, are we, as parents, using all of the resources available to us? If we are ignoring the importance of support staff, I suggest we are not.

Jyarland Daniels, MBA, JD

Jyarland Daniels, MBA, JD is CEO & Founder of Harriet Speaks℠, a racial equity and inclusion consultancy that offers training, coaching, and (crisis) communications strategies for non-profits, educational institutions, and corporations. Harriet Speaks is eager to work with your school and/or parent organization to create community. Learn more at harrietspeaks.com.