Origin Story

Today on the blog I talk to Sharhonda Bossier. Bossier is vice president of network impact at Education Cities, an organization that works with cities and their leaders to create more great schools. Bossier is a former teacher and co-founded Families for Excellent Schools. Bossier and I talked about her own education activism, how her personal experience drives that work, and her critiques of current reform approaches. In this first part of our conversation, Bossier talks about how she became engaged in public education activism, and why that led her to become involved in reform.

Me: What was your first experience as an education activist?

Bossier: It was in high school, and wow that feels like forever ago. I started a student organizing committee, and we organized around the mayor’s race in Los Angeles at the time. We were really focused on the disparities in our high school experience, particularly between ours and the schools in the valley. We staffed the mayoral campaign to make sure that we weren’t ignored. We held a candidate convention, and a lot of the candidates came to our high school to share their vision and plan for the city. It was more around civic engagement as a whole than around education, but the impetus for it was the Community Coalition (COCO) in south LA, which was raising awareness around dropout rates in the large high schools. My school had a sixty percent graduation rate. We sort of knew that, because we could look around and name the kids who weren’t showing up. But to hear that over forty percent of you were no longer here was sobering. It was a real call to action. We saw ourselves, as kids, having very little clout. Very few options for how we would influence the direction of the city. We were trying to cultivate adult champions who could advocate on our behalf.

Me: Did you feel like that worked? Who showed up for you?

Bossier: I had an amazing set of U.S. History and civics teachers that let me run this project. They were huge supporters, but I still had to take the AP exam. “Fine, you don’t have to come to classes, because the film crew is following you around, but you’re taking the exam,” they said.

Letting me do this and chase my dreams, while doing the important academic stuff, was really important. A few of the community based organizations showed up. COCO was a big big big one. Some of the folks that I organized with in high school are still members and active. Beyond that it was the superstar and really active and engaged parents. The parents who would have come to the basketball games also came to the convention we held for candidates. And our principal let us take half days to run this convention. Let us use the portables for breakout sessions. The community coalition really rallied around it.

Me: Did you do education or politics in college?

Bossier: My first year I was the elections commissioner for the student union association, our student government body. Our school had spending limits on what we could spend for elections. When you’re a little girl from Watts overseeing campaigns, and all of these wealthy kids are trying to challenge the spending limits. That’s something. And then you get called to the chancellor’s office and her counsel is sitting there? If you Googled me before I had social media accounts, the first thing that came up was that. The wealthy kids want to buy even student elections.

After that, I spent most of my undergrad time focused on recruitment and retention of students of color from low-income students. It was an incredibly white student population at my college, and I did that for a year. After that I worked with the black student alliance. And I was a writing tutor. That’s how I decided to become a teacher. There were all of these kids like me, kids who came from poor neighborhoods, but they couldn’t pass the writing exam. It was heartbreaking to see, the kids are coming to you the last possible quarter, and you would go through a writing exercise, and you just know they’re not going to make it. That’s why I decided to become a high school teacher, because we have to deal with this before college. If you can’t pass the writing exam once you’re there, it doesn’t matter what your major is, you’re not going to make it.

Me: Where did you teach?

Bossier: I spent a year teaching in Santa Cruz. Half that year I taught in a bilingual core class, so I taught the kids of “newcomers” to this country and migrant farm workers. The kids that should have been in mainstream courses stayed in ESL classes sometimes because it was more socially comfortable. You can read and write in English, you’re in 10th grade, what are you doing? And it was like, “I don’t want to take classes with these other kids.” Counselors wouldn’t fight or push that. That was hard.

After that I left California and moved to Austin and I taught U.S. history and government at Akins High School in Austin, which is a large comprehensive high school. It was named after the first black teachers to teach at an integrated high school after desegregation. He was still alive and would come to all of the events. It was one of those schools that folks thought would be awesome. Kids could choose from five majors, there were smaller learning communities. Anything that was cutting edge around professional development, Akins was trying. It’s interesting to go back there now and hear that it’s just not working. That’s the challenge of serving an increasingly high needs population. The district and the staff are not well equipped to manage that.

Then I left Austin and moved to Brooklyn, all of this moving following my girlfriend, by the way, who then got a job in finance in New York. I taught at the Urban Assembly school for law and justice, a part of the small schools in New York City. They hadn’t even graduated a class yet when I joined the team, the school was that new. 

Me: So you have all of this great teaching experience, though a traditional route no less! But at some point the activist in you popped out?

Bossier: A couple of things happened. This had been a nagging thought in Texas. I applied for a bunch of jobs in the Austin schools, and I got a call from one of the best schools in Austin. They were like, “Your scores on the teacher exam are great, your resume is amazing, all of this looks great, but one quick question. Do you coach football?” So, I didn’t get that job because I didn’t coach football. I ultimately ended up in a place that was better for me, but right next door to me in that other school, the other history teacher was a baseball coach with the world’s most impressive movie collection. I had kids in my class, trying to take them through James Baldwin, and the kids next door are yelling because some crazy thing happened in some movie that was constantly on. It’s hard to keep your kids focused, and it’s unfair to those other kids who aren’t getting real instruction.

Second, in Brooklyn our school had about a hundred slots for incoming ninth graders. We would get a thousand applications for those slots. And we were an unscreened, district school. So we had to take whatever one hundred kids came through the lottery. This was a district lottery, we had them too, it’s not just the charters. You just get to this point where you’ve done enough open houses, you’ve done enough work to recruit boys to our school, which is hard without a sports program. Boys are choosing the larger underperforming high schools, because they have sports. We worked with local middle schools to organize boys only tours, because we especially wanted to connect them with the law and justice theme. We did our acceptance night, and I’d fall in love with a kid on a tour, and then you find out your kid Tarik didn’t get in. And I’m like “damn, where is Tarik?”

Also, I was teaching sophomores and juniors who were just so unhappy in our school. We’ d have conversations with them and their parents, and I had a parent say to me, “Ms. Bossier, I hear you, I do, but nobody is going to love my son the way you do.”

I’d respond, “But I’m telling you, he is miserable. When he’s not in my class anymore, this is not going to work.”

And then she looked at me and said, “Here are his other options. Even if he’s miserable, the other options are so bad.” You feel like you have to do something about that.

Me: So then you become an “education reformer,” emphasis on the air quotes?

Bossier: I didn't know that I was an education reformer for a long time. For a LONG time ...

To be continued ...