My Unscientific Theory Is That Kids Are Losing Ground ... Even in the Suburbs

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For the last few weeks I have been having a series of conversations with Tenicka Boyd, a community organizer who runs the New York affiliate of StudentsFirst. Our conversations range from the theoretical issues around the politics of school change, to her own experience with the public schools her daughter attends. Today I am posting the first installment of our conversations.

Me: What’s hot right now?

Boyd: I just came from a gathering of organizers in New York City. I was talking to some folks on our team about creating culture. We employ a lot of people who are not used to working in formal work environments. It can be upsetting to the culture of the office. Something like thirty percent of our staff are here to do well and save the world, and this is their first stop on their save the world tour. Another seventy percent are parents from the communities we work with. So I was just dealing with some of the issues that bubble up from that.

Me: Got it. So, where did you come from and why do you do this work?

Boyd: I do this work because I believe that to whom much is given, much is required. I grew up primarily in Milwaukee. I spent years of my life in Chicago, but Milwaukee was considered a less dangerous community, with a much better social welfare system. We were a poor working class family. My mother has been working in a meat shop for 25 years, sometimes 17 hour days. There were always between four and six kids in our house, depending on whether or not a cousin was displaced. She was a young parent, and my parents raised us with as much knowledge about the world as they had. Which was basically two counties’ worth of information. They’d never think of sending their kids to any other school besides the one in the neighborhood. They read to their kids. It wasn’t that they didn’t have a lot of intellectual curiosity, but their economic conditions controlled their narrative.

My life changed when I went to Hopkins Street Elementary school in Milwaukee for third grade. When I walked into Doug Smith’s class, who was my third grade teacher, he changed the trajectory of my whole life. Before that, I think the three years I went to elementary school was a series of embarrassing moments. I got yelled at. I urinated on myself.  I was stuck in the back of the class. I was largely ignored. But Doug Smith created a nurturing environment where learning was encouraged. He stayed after school. He drove me to the book store. He introduced me to hardcore reading and writing. He allowed me to make it through many more years of fucked up teachers. I remember being in the 9th grade and thinking, “Everything that I am learning is the same as what I learned from Doug Smith.” And I went to a somewhat competitive school. I went for social reasons. My parents saw me as a smart kid that couldn’t fight, so I needed to go where the smart kids that couldn’t fight went.

But even at that school, there was no expectation that I would go anywhere or do anything. I sat in the back of the class, I was the only black girl in my IB courses, and I was a "B" student. I heard that Oprah went to Tennessee State, so I went to Tennessee State. A bunch of kids from my class went to Harvard and Yale, but I didn’t even know what Harvard and Yale were.

My siblings have the same mother and father, and they are still in the midwest. All of my siblings are unemployed or underemployed without a lot of skills that can help them move beyond their circumstances. Most of them have strong records in the criminal justice system. My mother doesn’t know what happened. She thinks she worked tremendously hard, and by most accounts, she did. And I just think there were teachers that happened to care about me. I always wanted to be an activist, and because Doug helped me, I wanted to do something on education. I never really saw myself as an education reformer per se, but I just never saw why it was okay not to hold teachers, or doctors, or police accountable. It was all the same to me.

Me: If I asked your siblings the difference between them and you, what would they tell me?

Boyd: They would tell you I’m smart, but I think my brother is way smarter than me. If someone is twenty-eight and driving an Escalade and never paying taxes, he has to have some level of intelligence. They also believe in luck and destiny, so they’d probably say something like that.

Me: What would Doug Smith tell me?

Boyd: He’s a humble guy. The way he opened up the shell that was an eight-year-old Tenicka was a miracle. I think of friends and people who were destined for such greatness, but did not have such opportunities afforded to them by teachers. It’s only recently, though, that I’ve realized the effect he had on me. I didn’t recognize it at the time, and he probably didn’t either.

Me: Now that you’re an education activist, what’s different about the system than you expected? What’s exactly as you expected?

Boyd: I’ve gone from probably the bottom percentile economically to the top ten percent of African-American women economically, and now I’m a parent. And working as an activist in education. I’m super conscious and aware of these things, and I’m paying a lot of attention to the quality of teaching. As a child, student, and organizer, I don’t think I really appreciated just how much economic and residential segregation there is in a city, but just the tone and the culture of schools in different areas is fascinating. I can go into a school in my community, Park Slope, with a Goyard bag and get treated with respect. But I can go to a school in Crown Heights wearing a beanie and get treated with the utmost disrespect. It’s so different based on neighborhood.

What’s the same as when I grew up, though, are the inequities in low income communities. I can go into a school and close my eyes and listen to a teacher go on for twenty minutes about how to use a water foundation. “And you kids,” she’ll say, “if you keep leaving the water foundation on, you won’t amount to anything.” The condescension, the lack of awareness, the paternalistic nature of pushing kids into their ideas about what those kids are supposed to be. And a lot of the teachers I see behaving that way are teachers of color. That is still happening, and it’s fascinating to me that it still happens in 2015.

Me: What changes that, at scale?

Boyd: It’s going to take a drastic approach to humanity, maybe even liberation. There are a lot of folks in the school reform movement who think that charter schools can do what they’re doing at scale. I happen to think that a lot of them can get bigger. But I don’t think a lot of their models will work with every child, including those with zero tolerance policies.

I do think, though, that there is an implicit interest in the teachers’ unions to believe that the current level of performance is a social condition that amounts to nothing more than poverty. But that amounts to racism the minute you have concentrated poverty that’s almost entirely black and brown in cities. Poverty is a barrier in lots of ways. Education in this country is a public institution, but that doesn’t mean that public institution should be inadequate or poor. We have the resources in this country to meet the needs of poor kids through education. We actually have the ability to do that, right? But we have a culture where “public" equals the last option. Public healthcare is bad. Public retirement is bad. Public education is subpar. But we have the resources and tools to create a public system that is a quality system. But I don’t think there’s a real interest in doing that.

Me: Who might constitute the interest? What makes the difference politically?

Boyd: The political dynamic is that the teachers union uses black and brown bodies to protest reform. Reform communities are mobilizing those bodies as well. Politically we are probably in the infancy stages, but we are trying to engage middle income families around issues of choice as well. I don’t just mean choice in terms of public, private, parochial and charter schools. I’m talking about teaching. My daughter goes to PS 321 in New York City, which has a reputation as one of the best public schools in the city. It’s one of the highest income communities in the city. The mayor lives in the neighborhood. Kids are coming in at kindergarten two grade levels ahead, but they are leaving at grade level. My unscientific theory is that kids are losing ground, that’s even in middle income communities.

It is fascinating that we self segregate our kids, even as middle class liberal folks, into a school that we think is the best but loses ground. And then we say that this school is great. And we say, “This is what make a great school.” We need to turn that notion on its head, because in a lot of suburban communities, like Westchester County, a lot of white suburban kids are graduating with a college readiness rate of forty percent. We focus on black and Latino kids, because the rate is as low as ten percent. Sure, there is a chance you’ll do better in Westchester. But even they’re not nailing it. I think that’s the real narrative that needs to get out there. There aren’t a ton of places that are doing it very well, in spite of the economic level of the parents. We, as a country, are doing public education wrong!