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Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Jones: Impressions of schooling

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My mother is a fierce warrior for education. She is not a teacher or principal. She has never worked in the State House or an authorizer’s office. She has never sold curriculum or owned a tutoring company. What she has done is been a parent.

She was the type of parent who showed up for every PTA activity, participated in every bake sale and poked her head in classrooms to check on her three Black sons. I remember one particular meeting where she literally forced officials at my school to test me for gifted education — fierce. You would’ve thought the great John Lewis was in the school office staging a sit-in with the conviction she showed that day. She was abolishing institutional racism in one blow in that school lobby. She knew that if I was in the gifted program, I would receive a better education than the one I received in my general placement.

Another thing my mother knew was that school could not support me beyond math and English. In fact, my parents believed that school could actually be harmful and detrimental to my blackness if not done correctly. This is why my mother stocked our bookshelves with books by Alex Haley and W.E.B. Dubois and told us about her family’s history in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This is why my father told us stories about growing up in segregated Galveston, Texas, where they have always celebrated Juneteenth. My parents wanted us to be clear about who we were wherever we went and not be ashamed or broken in spaces that were not built for us.

To understand what my parents thought of school, it is important to understand the concept of the school as analogous to a stamp. A stamp, in this context, is meant to impress upon. This means that schools as stamps are meant to make impressions upon our children. If we consider that children benefit from the wisdom and care of adults, this makes perfect sense. Impressions made by school staff can be a beautiful benefit to children.

However, when we consider that many Black parents feel like school is designed to facilitate the assimilation of their Black children to whiteness, this stamp analogy becomes more complex and concerning. Even more fraught is the choice parents have in front of them regarding schools. Many parents feel like they need to choose between a school that affirms their child’s identity and a school that prepares them academically. This dichotomy literally brings tears to my eyes as it is an all-too-real experience in my own household. As I search for high-quality high schools for my own children, I am forced to divorce the need for identity affirmation as an African American and the idea of academic excellence. It is almost like we live in a world where the two ideas are exclusive when we should see Blackness and excellence as synonymous.

The need for schools where Blackness and academic excellence work in tandem is absolutely necessary for Indianapolis, and our country, to move forward. These should be schools that have created a new stamp, a new impression. An impression where we understand that Toni Morrison is as rigorous as any white author and our children deserve exposure to her writing.

We need a school that stamps a world where we understand that mathematics is in Black blood and the world’s oldest mathematical instrument, the Ishango bone, was found in Africa. We need a school that stamps excellence in writing and science, not just performative science but actual proficiency that moves our children into foundational scientific careers at Fortune 500 companies and propels them into spaces where they create for themselves.

A world like this can only happen when we design our own education. This happens when we run our own schools and dare ourselves to be great, not simply accept educational mediocrity. These will be schools where we honor the idea of self-determination and understand that it exists in a space where our children actually perform exceptionally academically in spaces built by us and for us — without excuses for our children and without excuses for ourselves.

As Indianapolis increases its ranks of Black and Latinx leaders who operate autonomous schools there is hope that they will build institutions that affirm our children. This piece is a cry for those leaders to simultaneously commit to building spaces in which our students experience their brilliance academically as seen on ILEARN, the SAT, and whatever other metrics are thrown at them — not in spite of their culture but because of it. It is also a cry for parents to continue to vocally hold our education leaders accountable for creating dynamic intellectual spaces for our children. Spaces unlike our suburban schools we hold in high esteem and unlike our exalted private school landscape. These will be spaces that have no comparison because their fruits have yet to be realized.

Patrick Jones II is senior vice president of leadership and equity at The Mind Trust.

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