This post is adapted and distilled from ongoing reflections and conversations about my educational experiences and how they’ve informed my views on school improvement.
I grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland just outside Washington, DC. My parents divorced when I was four, so my mom – a teacher – raised me and my older sister on her own. Although my mom was a teacher, for as long as I could remember, she worked side hustles like writing curriculum, running after school programs, summer enrichment camps, teaching in teacher prep programs, and training educators in other states and districts to supplement our family income.
School for me was always a delight when growing up. As I think about it, I spent so much time in and around schools, it was inevitable that I would end up working in education. I loved going to school. At least once, I was threatened with not going to school as a result of not cleaning my room or doing some other chore.
I would take the Metro for 45 minutes to get to school in Georgetown from our house in PG County, and after going to school all day, I would take public transportation to my mom’s schools where I would do homework, decorate bulletin boards, and help with other tasks around the school (pro bono, I might add).
In retrospect, one reason I think I loved school so much is that my mom believed in progressive and constructivist education experiences. I went to a bilingual Montessori pre-school and then went to a progressive independent school, Georgetown Day School, in DC from K-8.
My experiences at GDS severely color my outlooks and opinions on education. GDS embodied much of what we’re after here with respect to whole child, learning science-informed education:
- We didn’t get letter grades until 7th grade,
- We received effort marks starting in kindergarten,
- All kids began community service in 4th grade,
- PE was offered every day, every year,
- We learned music at least weekly in elementary school, and then we chose to participate in band or chorus every day in middle school,
- We got to go to art class every day for nine years,
- We traveled to camp for a few nights each year for an immersive experience, usually aligned to our core curriculum (like learning Native American history in the region, re-creating colonial life, or an extended visit on the Chesapeake Bay),
- We went on weekly field trips to pretty much every one of DC’s Smithsonian museums aligned to whichever unit we were studying,
- And perhaps most tellingly, we called our teachers by their first names.
So, when I changed schools after 8th grade to attend a Great Public School™️, it was still a very different experience. All of a sudden, I was one student ID number among 400 in my class, instead of an individual in a class of 80. I could no longer tell you the names of every student in my grade, or the names of their parents, or the names of their siblings. I was no longer enriching my educational experience through learning out in the world at museums and other community establishments. And community service was an added requirement, not an expectation embedded into the fabric of our curriculum. And we didn’t have access to a modern computer lab and devices.
Again, I can’t stress enough that this was a Great Public School™️ that often is ranked well on those silly lists. But in this Great Public School™️, often touted as one of the most racially integrated schools in that county, my mom still had to advocate for me to get into the advanced math classes I was slated to be in from my previous school. And she had to advocate for me to get into the AP and IB courses I took, while I’m sure there were some students whose “belongingness” in those courses was assumed, and never questioned. As a result, I was often one of only one or two black students in pretty much all of my classes.
Overall, my experience at my Great Public School™️ was fine, I experienced countless microagressions (I have a word for those slights and comments after an advanced degree). There were a few great teachers who got to know me, but overall (and knowing what I know now), I wonder what if I didn’t have a parent who knew how to navigate the complexities of the education systems in the Greater Washington area? What if the deputy superintendent in Montgomery County hadn’t happened to student-teach under her so she could call in a favor to get me into this school without the requisite tuition for out-of-district students? What would have happened if I hadn’t had a teacher for our Extended Essay class – a semester long research project for IB – who had encouraged me to explore my interest in The Matrix by gently nudging me towards some of the source material and its foundations in metaphysics, phenomenology, and existentialism rather than shutting down my intellectual curiosity, as many teachers would?
I also think about what would’ve happened if I hadn’t gone to a college where I could follow that interest in philosophy and neuroscience towards a major, when my “Plan A” of doing biomedical engineering didn’t work out? And what if I hadn’t happened to have someone in my advisory freshman year of college who was from a neighboring high school, and whose childhood best friend’s mom ran a sleep lab and needed a technician to read brain waves when I was looking for jobs at graduation?
My story after college is pretty unremarkable: I started a tutoring company as a side-hustle while working in this sleep lab, and it turns out I was pretty good at working with kids. So I started teaching, then fell in love with teaching at a bilingual charter school in DC, went to grad school to learn more about how to apply neuroscience to education, and ended up working in the Boston Public Schools. But what I think is extremely remarkable is the way in which context and circumstance can impact and influence and determine the path of one’s educational experience, and thus their life experience.
I was beyond fortunate that my mom was able to navigate a system designed to keep kids like me – black males with single mothers in Prince George’s County – from being successful. Somehow, due to this fortunate schooling, I was able to develop a love for learning itself. But whenever I inevitably get pulled into conversations about the discrepancies in “outcomes” for students based on race and socioeconomic status, I can’t help but redirect the conversation to one about the separate and unequal education systems we’ve allowed to persist in this country.
I wonder why we’re okay with some kids attending an elite private school that cost $40K per year without financial aid in 1997 (when I left), and where you could never find a class with more than a 12:1 students-to-teacher ratio. And why it’s okay for other kids to attend a public school district that spends more than $20K per student. And why some kids are relegated to attending schools that spend less than $10K on them? And in these schools, some kids call their teachers by their first names, some kids have open campuses and drive their luxury cars to lunch spots neighboring their open public school campus, and some kids can’t talk in the hallways or at their lunch tables because it gets “results.”
We have these radically different and segregated systems, but we pretend to be shocked when we get disparate results.
So, when I think about our work here in education, I can’t say, as many reformers do, that “the only way these black and brown kids can learn is if they’re in a draconian school that implements punitive discipline policies and test-based accountability.” I want to take that same $40-, $50-, $60-grand educational experience to which many of our top educational policy makers are sending their children, and make it available for every kid in this country. If we can eliminate disparities in the educational experiences and contexts and environments we’re providing to children, then we’ll finally start to eliminate the disparities in the outcomes we see for young people.