A New Narrative: Black Parents, Educators Can Shatter Outmoded K-12 Framework
By Kristen Smith
When Zaila Avant-garde won the national spelling bee, I knew it wouldn’t be long before school choice became a part of the discussion. A naturally bright kid, and some would say a prodigy, Zaila is also the product of parents who decided to homeschool her instead of putting her in a traditional school setting. This decision to mold learning around the specific needs of their child was a move that proved Zaila’s interests and aptitude could be molded, too.
Homeschooling gave Zaila and her parents the opportunity to pursue her passions and strengths; far too often, though, empowering families to choose the right schooling environment becomes a political football instead of a glowing headline.
It’s no secret that the school choice movement is viewed as heavily political, but it doesn’t have to be if we embrace the voices of those who most need and utilize educational options. As a former teacher and education advocate, I strongly feel all parents have the right to choose where their child goes to school — and that includes learning at home.
After all, African American children have historically been most impacted by the segregationist tendencies of political leaders. White and wealthy communities have used school choice as a means to separate from other racial and class groups dating as far back as the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. Because African American families experience a greater rate of poverty and a lower rate of high-quality education, many are left entirely out of the choice conversation and cast to the side where they inevitably can develop and harbor ill feelings about the movement altogether.
Hot button topic or not, I firmly believe school choice is a viable road to creating real equity within communities of color. More than anything, I think Black families need more resources and examples of what having this type of choice can mean for their children.
Recently, I attended the Reimagining Education Millennial Symposium in New Orleans, a conference grounded in the rich history of the African American educational experience. The symposium, which was sponsored by EdChoice, targeted Black millennial leaders, mostly from local and national Urban League Young Professional chapters, to examine the current state of education and explore how policies and school choice can impact communities of color. Facilitated by EdChoice Senior Outreach Director Emory Edwards, the goal of the conference was to arm participants with tools to engage community members on the policies, historical framework, and increasing the impact of Black representation in educational leadership.
While I attended all of the sessions, one in particular stood out: “Reimagining Education: How do we build an education ecosystem to support our next generation?” A group of us gathered to do what they called an “ecosystem exercise.” We were given no other rules than to create an education ecosystem without limitations.
This session was uniquely challenging. At first, we all struggled quite a bit to come up with an idea outside of what we were familiar with. I realized later, we had so much trouble with this exercise not because it was particularly hard, but because it was actually about unlearning. We’d all come to the group with certain notions about how school must be — not what it could be.
When we started, we were operating within the framework that already exists, talking about issues such as after-school programming, smaller class sizes and better disciplinary procedures. Those topics are pre-determined, someone else’s ecosystem. We were pushed to break free from that model.
Once we got going and it was time to share out, everyone contributed such wonderful ideas, all rooted in love and holistic practices, many of them leveraging community assets that already exist in any given community aren’t necessarily leveraged appropriately.
We came back to the group with a vision to create holistic practices that address multi-generational opportunities to learn within the schools; design workforce opportunities by building partnerships within the school setting; intentionally utilize local vendors to support the school’s surrounding economy; and provide yoga and learning centers for parents within the school to access higher learning.
It was hard to build a different vocabulary to describe what’s possible for us because we had to learn to unlearn and reimagine the endless possibilities we can create. After all, can’t we fight for students within traditional systems and expand opportunities for families that choose to do something different?
Building a new vocabulary meant we had to move beyond the polarizing language that defines the debate as charter versus traditional schools. We realized that the schools we were creating were not available at scale, and some school leaders who were present were already stepping outside of the box to meet their students’ needs.
As we change up the vocabulary, we need to do a better job describing the different variations of school choice and describing how Black families have always sought different options for their children and need to continue to be resourced to create/decide the learning that’s best for their children. If that option doesn’t exist, it just means we need more leaders to create the space for what’s possible.
As an educator and entrepreneur, my dream is to see Black business owners get more involved in education. I’d love for entrepreneurs to create incubator pipelines that expose Black kids to entrepreneurship while helping them to develop business skills like financial literacy, negotiation, cash flow, and the ins and outs of buying power. So many jobs today want candidates with an “entrepreneurial spirit,” but how many of our kids are we preparing for this type of workforce? How can we partner with business owners and skilled professionals to strengthen our ecosystem within the community? Like Zaila and her parents, how can we engage with the choice movement to create more wins that truly center our children’s needs and help them to excel?
When we begin to draw outside the lines and see choice as power, we can be liberated from the many barriers that hold us back from high-quality learning.
Kristen Smith is a former educator, entrepreneur, and a 2021 National Voices Fellow at 50CAN.