For all of my educators, I know y’all can appreciate a good essential question, so here are two for you to ponder:
- What is the purpose of education?
- Does that purpose apply to Black children?
I have really been working through these questions because I am an educator and believe strongly in education as a way to elevate and equalize people. At the same time, I’m not sure I can answer either of the questions that I have just posed. If you’ve been reading my blogs or if you know me, I can work a podcast into any conversation. Lately, I’ve been obsessing over NPR’s Code Switch Podcast and the three part series about an all Black male high school.
The Ron Brown Academy is a high school located in our nation’s capital that opened its doors in 2016 to 100 Black boys. They started with a 9th grade class and will build up over the next four years to complete all of the grades. The students are chosen based on a lottery.
First off, I know about many all boys schools that are comprised of Black boys but this school is different because it prides itself on giving a unique experience to Black boys who range in socioeconomic status, academic achievement and family structure. When I say unique, I mean that this school is attempting to educate Black boys, many of whom have had some shitty experiences in educational settings and get them through four years without suspending any of them.
Hold up. Wait. Come again?
No suspensions? If this ain’t radical, I don’t know what is. And what’s even more radical, the Principal, Dr. Ben Williams and his staff want to counter undesirable behavior with one simple thing…Love.
I mentioned this school in the latest CREAD Podcast because they have really piqued my interest. As I think about this school, I wonder, “Is this school just good for Black boys or is this just a good educational model for all children?” Here are the things that are making me go hmmmm.
Social Emotional Learning- This is the new buzz word floating around in these educational streets that basically says that we need to be responsive to and teach academic and social behaviors. In the school building, it is the job of the community to ensure that the child is nurtured, is included and is safe. I think we can all agree that we want our children to be in an environment like this.
Ron Brown Academy takes this a step further. They believe that social emotional learning looks different for Black boys. The students are referred to as “kings” because as one of the teachers stated, “You have to speak greatness into them.” In addition to being greeted as royalty, they also have a care team- people whose job it is to encourage, talk to and greet the students. Many of the team members are Black men. They ensure that the kings are meeting their academic goals and they give out hugs like every day is the last time they’ll see the kings.
Let me just say that I am here for all of this: Black boys as kings, Black men showing love to Black boys (hell, just having Black men in education because unfortunately, it’s more likely to find Black unicorns than Black male teachers.) So everything in my mind is saying this is dope. This is for us by us.
But here’s one of my issues…
Restorative circles: Social emotional learning encompasses students’ ability to handle their feelings, show empathy and set goals for their behavior. One way schools are trying to address this is through restorative circles. Ron Brown prides itself on using this practice to get to the root of some deep emotional issues with their kings.
Don’t get me wrong- I love me some restorative circles as much as I love me some Love and Hip Hop reunions but I find it problematic that Black students seem to be the only ones who need them. I think the practice of restoring relationships and healing from pain are beneficial and it’s what we need to teach our young people. So why is this not the norm for ALL students?
I think White folks need restorative circles before anybody else on the planet. Dylan Roof needed a restorative circle from the womb. The Vegas shooter needed a restorative something and this Texas shooter could’ve definitely benefitted from getting his feelings out there. But somehow, we have convinced ourselves that Black boys’ anger is the real threat.
While I think the restorative piece is great, I don’t think there was a good enough job of stressing the fact that society, not just these kings, could benefit from a circle or two or 200. If this is a practice in education, it should be a practice in all of our schools, not just the ones who serve a large population of Black boys.
Respectability Politics: As a mother of a Black son, I am always thinking of the ways that my son will be educated. Will I be able to put him in a school that is both rigorous and celebrates his Blackness, his culture and the contributions of his ancestors?
So I was beyond curious to hear about the ways that this happens at this school. The students go on college tours often, visiting universities like Morehouse and Howard but I have to admit, I was a bit underwhelmed. The kings were taught how to tie their ties, how to code switch and how to basically blend into White spaces.
Again, I think all of that is important because I have to prepare my son for survival and how to move in his current reality but in a school like this, I would also want my son to envision and have the tools to create a different reality.
If my son is a king, I want him to wear a tie on some days and a dashiki on others. I expect him to be in an environment where the classes are named after figures and heroes like Marcus Garvey, Angela Davis and Malcolm X. We are going to the Ida B. Wells auditorium or the Martin Luther King Jr. library. I would want to feel as though my child is immersed in Blackness (but that’s just me.)
As I listened to the series, which I recommend you all do, I felt annoyed by the messaging that the only way to make it is to appear respectable in front of White folks and honestly, I wanted to return that message to sender. I no longer wanted to hear that Black boys needed fixin’. It really irked me and before they aired the third part of the series, I attended the Michelle Alexander conversation with Angela Davis. Dr. Davis was speaking in general but summed up my feelings perfectly with the question, “Why do we want to assimilate into a racist society?” (I know that’s deep. Consider that your third essential question.)
This is the missing piece at Ron Brown. Yes, teach our kids how to navigate the system but also teach them how to destroy these systems. Once we “make it,” we rarely try to do that- the status quo is more comfy than a Snuggie.
So again, what is the point of education and what is the impact of an education that may claim to be unique but is really pushing out some of the same ol’, same ol’?
But what about the Black women?
In the debrief of the three part series, one of the issues that came up is not only how race and racism is dealt with but the way sexism is or is not dealt with at the school. At Ron Brown, there is a lot of testosterone with a lot of toxic masculinity to match. The staff admitted that one of the female teachers was touched inappropriately which led to a student’s suspension (although Ron Brown’s aim is to avoid suspension.)
In a school like this, if you don’t teach nothing else, you have to teach the value of the Black woman. This is part of the socio-emotional piece in which Ron Brown can create the blueprint.
Every time a parent was interviewed throughout the series, it was a mother who spoke about the impact that the school was having on her son. In one segment, a student was having some serious behavior and legal issues and had to participate in a restorative circle. Who was there, shedding tears and trying to help him through the healing process? His mother, a Black woman.
So it was difficult to hear that this was not a focus of the school. Obviously, there were many priorities in a school with a vulnerable population but this issue is just as important as graduation rates, test scores and learning how to tie a tie. Learning how to love and value Black women has to be on the agenda in a school like this.
A couple of months ago, I was reading The Crunk Feminist Collection. First of all, this book is everything. It convinced me to become a follower of the Lorde (Audre Lorde that is) and I am grateful for that work. In The Crunk Feminist Collection, one of the essays basically said, “Just because a man loves his Black mama doesn’t mean he loves Black women.”
That line made me give the book three snaps in Z formation because it just tap danced on my soul. We have to teach our young men that loving your mother does not mean you love women and if you don’t see the value or the need to respect women, then in essence, you really don’t love or respect your mother.
Again, this is an aspect of education that doesn’t get enough attention; the dynamic between men and women is a topic that warrants more discussion. Finally in 2017, we have had enough of the misogynistic, sexist, creepy fuck shit and we need to work with our young men before they become the Weinsteins and Cosbys of the world. This conversation isn’t just needed with Black boys (clearly.) It’s needed with boys, period. So yeah, we need to do better.
Ron Brown just promoted its 9th grade class and now has a 9th and 10th grade.
I am hoping after the staff and administration from the school have heard the podcast series and the reactions from those in education, policy makers and listeners, that they will begin to address and continue to improve upon their current practices.
But I think they are attempting to do something amazing, different and impactful and I will continue to cheer on their efforts while remaining critical of the things that deserve further discussion. I believe we all have to be part of the solution so…
Educators, readers and skin folk, please drop a line or two answering the two questions in the beginning and let’s keep the conversation going. If you haven’t listened to the podcast yet, please do and use it to have a discussion with your colleagues, friends, family and more importantly, students. If you do nothing else, remember to