What This Teacher Learned from Visiting 20 Schools Effectively Supporting Kids of Color

As I sat across from Tykia, a 17-year-old student from Success Academy in Lexington, Ky., I could feel her frustration as she detailed a recent argument with a substitute bus driver. Listening to her account, I was reminded of my own aggravations when dealing with adults as a young African American girl in middle school.

TyKia described how the events of the argument unfolded. “I was just tryin’ to help the man,” she said. “He didn’t know where he was going, so I was just tryin’ to tell him and that’s when he yelled at me.” TyKia needed to get home to take care of a few things for her family, but the bus driver was lost. She took out a piece of paper and wrote down everyone’s bus stop for him, but the bus driver didn’t appreciate the help. Instead, he was angry with her for getting involved. “Yes, I cussed, and I shouldn’t have done that,” TyKia admitted. “But he was driving all over the place and I had to get home.”

TyKia, who had already attended a previous high school and was in danger of not graduating because of a lack of credits, explained that this type of treatment wasn’t uncommon. From her perspective, her actions had been misunderstood by adults since elementary school. But she said that her outlook was changing because at her new school, Success Academy, she was able to build a strong relationship with her principal, Dr. Janice Wyatt-Ross.

She explained that since she’d started at Success Academy, she felt understood and loved. “I have relationships with Dr. Ross and my other teachers. They like me and if I don’t feel like someone likes me, I can’t work for them.”

Dr. Ross has built a strong community through the relationships she has developed with her students and teachers. As TyKia talked about her, I couldn’t help but feel thankful for the opportunity to meet her in person and observe her work.

In May 2018, I was named the 2019 Kentucky Elementary Teacher of the Year and was offered an opportunity to take a semester-long sabbatical working with the Kentucky Department of Education. I wondered how to make the most of my time.

I had been teaching in Jefferson County for 19 years, most recently teaching creative writing through hip-hop at Phillis Wheatley Elementary School, located in the west end of Louisville, Ky., which serves a student population that is 99 percent African American. Given my experience, I understood the unique opportunities of teaching students of color and the necessity for developing strong relationships. Over time, I’ve developed my own strategies, but I wondered how other educators and school communities were supporting students of color, especially African American students.

I decided to use my sabbatical to travel the state and find out.

Strong teachers ask big questions and solve problems—sometimes by digging into our own practice or the learning outcomes of our students, other times by talking to our peers about their experiences or seeking out novel resources and ideas. Researchers do this too.

In the spirit of considering myself as a teacher and researcher, I decided to engage in some action research to gain insight into the experience of my peers, leverage their expertise and to reflect on how to incorporate what I learned into my practice to better support my own students.

Success Academy is one of 20 schools I visited in and around Kentucky. I identified practitioners sharing about practices they had found effective when supporting students of color and contacted them to see if I could come see their work in action, interview them and talk with their students.

Here’s what I learned from three innovative school leaders I encountered on my travels.

Success Academy, Fayette County Public Schools, Lexington, Ky.

Success Academy is an alternative public school that allows high school students over the age of 16 who are not on track to graduate to attend school during flexible hours. I learned about the school through the tweets of Dr. Ross, founder of the online community, Kentucky Educators of Color, and principal at Success Academy. During my visit, I asked Dr. Ross to share what contributes to the success of her students, who are overwhelmingly students of color from low-income families. According to Dr. Ross, it’s a combination of prioritizing relationships and developing relevant curriculum.

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Here she describes her strategies in her own words:

Dr. Ross giving a student a “goody bag” of essentials. (Credit: NyRee Clayton-Taylor)
  • Provide students with the essentials they need: Many of my students come to school without their basic needs met. I talk to my students and ask them what they need and the next day, I make sure they have it. I make “goody bags” with the essentials they need and make sure the educators at my school understand that when kids don’t have their basic needs met, it’s difficult—if not impossible—to learn.
  • Offer students a safe place that is free of judgment: I don’t argue with students about trivial matters because in my opinion, what’s most important is that my students made a conscious decision to come to school. Whether a student has on a hat, a hoodie or pajamas, I welcome them with open arms. I recognize that some students need that hat or hoodie because it makes them feel safe. Arguing about trivial issues like their dress hasn’t been helpful in my experience.
  • Develop curriculum that resembles the real world: Curriculum has to change—to infuse engagement, higher learning practices and have components of self-actualization. We’ve developed curriculum that infuses high school graduation credits to real-life credit scores. For example, TyKia earns credits each week based on her attendance, the goals she accomplishes and the credits she earns toward graduation. At the end of the semester, we assess TyKia’s “credit score” and she can use her credit to spend money or open a business at Junior Achievement BizTown, a simulated school store. This approach allows TyKia and her classmates to understand the connection between school and the real world.

The Academy @ Shawnee Girls of Color Program, Jefferson County Public Schools, Louisville, Ky.

I learned about The Academy @ Shawnee Girls of Color program through a professional development session focused on the adultification of African American girls—the idea that black girls in the classroom are seen as less innocent, less child-like and more sexual than white girls their same age. It was led by a group of high school students from the program who schooled us about their first-hand experiences being adultified and how they faced challenges and stereotypes by previous teachers. During my visit, I asked Dr. LaRhonda Mathies, leader of the program, how she ensures success for her girls. Mathies explained that she recognized that relationships are key to success for her girls so she designed the program to support relationships in a few ways:

Students from the Girls of Color Program during Sister Circles, presenting professional development for teachers, and visiting the Louisville Zoo. (Credit: NyRee Clayton-Taylor and LaRhonda Mathies)
  • Empowering girls in the program to build their own positive relationships through mentorship: Students in the program visit nearby middle and elementary schools in the district to lead “Sister Circles,” or healing circles in which younger African American girls openly discuss issues that affect them in the classroom.
  • Developing a strong voice: Poetry circles allow my girls to use their voice and be heard without judgment. In the circles, girls recite poems by famous authors and share original poems that speak to their personal experiences and counter stereotypes that are witnessed in school, home, community or the world.
  • Bonding outside of the classroom: To nurture relationships, we meet at different locations throughout the city. For example, recently we visited the Louisville Zoo and went for a meal. Sharing experiences outside of school helps us develop a community of trust and understanding.
  • Forging authentic relationships with parents: Students see me as more than a teacher because I forge relationships with their parents. I also talk to parents and visit their families just to chill out with them so they understand that I care about them and enjoy engaging with their families.
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Dr. Ahmad Washington, Assistant Professor, University of Louisville, Louisville, Ky.

I found out about Dr. Washington’s work through some counselors who attended his professional development sessions and classes at the University of Louisville. As an assistant professor, Dr. Washington teaches practitioners how to use hip-hop as a medium to build empathetic relationships with and between African American male students. He also works directly with young African American males in elementary, middle and high schools across the state. While interviewing him, I asked how he ensures success for his African American male students. Dr. Washington says that he draws upon hip-hop based pedagogy and critical consciousness to help African American males develop authentic relationships.

In his own words, he said he does this by:

Dr. Washington mentoring students using beat making equipment. (Credit: Michelle Pinnex)
  • Building empathetic relationships through hip-hop pedagogy: I encourage students to analyze hip-hop songs that tell their story. This practice invites young males to explore their identity form relationships with themselves and one another through music. For example, during one lesson, a student brought in the rapper Meek Mill’s song, “Going Bad.” Students identified with Mill, who was incarcerated at 19 years old and noticed connections between the prison industrial system and slavery. As we analyzed the song and the life of Meek Mill, students were able to challenge the negative narrative of their “hood”—rather than seeing it as being comprised of “bad people,” students considered it as a place where people were trying to exist under oppressive conditions. This realization allowed them to understand themselves in a new light. The song also opened up a conversation about forgiveness because Meek Mill is rapping with Drake and these two artists were once at odds with each other. Through hip-hop pedagogy, students analyzed how the rappers were able to forgive and collaborate.
  • Working with counselors and teachers to build effective relationships through alternative interactions with males of color: Counselors and teachers can use hip-hop pedagogy to overcome stereotypes and inherent bias toward young males of color. I assign educators readings from hip-hop lyrics that allow them to learn and understand the experience of many of their African American students. This helps educators to learn about the effects of racism and poverty through the eyes of students.

As I visited schools, every conversation was a learning experience that allowed me to gather wisdom from other educators. While each visit was unique, there was a clear thread that emerged, which is that the greatest contributor to student success across the board was developing relationships rooted in trust and understanding.

This doesn’t come as a surprise. Academics and clinical experts have long pointed toward the importance of student-teacher relationships and more broadly, the web of relationships young people grow with their family, teachers, mentors, and peers. And there are resources available that support educators in developing stronger relationships with their students.

While the big lesson I learned was unsurprising, it’s been quite valuable for me. As I enter back into the school setting as a resource to students and educators, I plan to apply some of the strategies I’ve learned through my observations and interviews in my own practice. I’m hopeful that what I’ve learned from my peers will strengthen the relationships I build with my students and will empower me to support my colleagues.

This type of action research takes time and support from countless colleagues, but it was a privilege to have the semester to investigate one of my passions in this way. Observing peers is something everyone can do, even if it’s on a smaller scale. And all teachers can improve their practice through action research. It just requires an open mind and a willingness to learn from the field.

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