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SCHOOL MATTERS: Active Parents Key to Black Students' Success

New America Media, Commentary, Rema Reynolds Posted: Jan 30, 2009

For African-American parents with children in the public school system, dealing with teachers from a cultural background different from theirs can be challenging and frustrating. My son, Marcus, is a good case in point.

The trouble started in kindergarten. He was in love with his teacher, a tall white woman, but the feeling was not mutual. Marcus wanted to answer all the questions all of the time. She did not recognize the oral tradition from which my son comes, and was unable to channel his strong communication skills. One awful day, his teacher called me to tell me that my son was continually defiant. Her words came hot, as if she were spitting venom through the phone. My heart dropped. His father and I are both educators, so where had we gone wrong? Why were we getting this call about our sweet little Marcus?

There must be some mistake, I thought. I went to see his supposed defiance. I slinked along the wall to the classroom door, peering in undetected. The teacher spotted me and promptly summoned my son over to the carpet for reading time. Marcus, do you want to come over and join us for circle time, she called out in the pleasant voice he had come to love. Marcus looked up from his work and politely replied, no, tucked in a corner of his bottom lip for optimal concentration, and returned to his task. She shot me a smirking glance. The look said, See. I told you he was defiant.

I stood there stunned. I had just witnessed a cultural disconnect. Perhaps if such an exchange had occurred at the playground or at the local ice cream shop, I would not have been so angry. But this was occurring at school, where we know the stakes are high and such labels of defiance can have detrimental effects for children, especially for black boys.

Culturally, black parents generally give directives. White parents tend to give choices and expect the child to choose the desired option. Marcus teacher was giving him choices, not directives. After she smirked, I modeled for the teacher the intonation and phrasing which would elicit the response she wanted. In a kind but firm voice I said, Marcus, put your things away and go over to circle time. Marcus looked a little panicked when he first saw me. But when he saw my smile, he quickly responded to my directive, stopped his task, and walked over to circle time with his peers. The teacher was amazed.

The teacher subsequently gave directives, and Marcus went on to have a tolerable kindergarten year. But what if I hadnt gone to the school to see for myself? What if I internalized the incident as my fault for not raising an obedient child?

Years after Marcus kindergarten year, I served on committees reviewing cases of students being expelled, mostly black and Latino boys. We reviewed their cumulative files looking for patterns of disciplinary misconduct. The documentation started in kindergarten. I saw my sons eyes when I looked into the faces of the young men before me.

I realized that if I were not a parent willing to engage schools and school personnel, my son could have easily been on the other side of the table. Parent involvement is essential to black students achievement and encompasses these simple but essential practices:

Be informed. The more information you have, the more you are able to advocate on your childs behalf.
Show up and make sure school officials know who you are. Communicate your needs and require school officials to listen and respond to your demands. The squeaky wheel gets the oil.

Sign up to serve in the PTA and local school board.

Question, critique, and challenge practices. Dont wait until theres a problem. Be proactive.

Collaborate with other parents to address the academic and social progress of all black children on campus. Their diminishing presence on college campuses tells us that black students of all social classes need advocacy. Black parents have an unrealized influential collective voice. Address unfair disciplinary practices, the lack of cultural and ethnic diversity in the curriculum, the need for more African American teachers and administrators, and more.

The power of the parent is necessary to reverse the educational outcomes of our students. The power resides in you. Exercise your parent power.

Related Articles:

California's Teachers Too Few, Too Unprepared

Black Media Briefed on Achievement Gap for Black Students

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