I have participated in a very courageous conversation on our efforts to work with students of color over the past three months. As an African American woman and native of the state of Alabama, this conversation generated so many questions. Although I have always worked with students of color, I have rarely reflected on the impact of my teaching career. I have always provided educational opportunities through my teaching of the state designed curriculum for students of color in numerous communities.
My career began in North Alabama in a very small school. This was certainly an eye-opening realization for me that launched my compassion for other peoples’ children; they became my children. I felt called to the community since it mirrored my home community in many ways. Having grown up in a somewhat upper middle-class family, in a very segregated area of South Alabama, I did not realize the struggles of so many African American families. Our community was so close knitted everyone helped to take care of each other. If someone fell on hard times or lost their job, my father would always hire them to work with his crew until they were on their feet again. Unemployment was not a long-term element of our community.
So, I was utterly shocked by the living conditions of my students. I realized that I was working in a community of racial inequality; poverty was real. There were families that did not have running water, and dwellings that did not have sleeping accommodations for all family members. For me, this was an uncomfortable heartbreaking setting as a young educated black teacher. Immediately, I set out to make this situation better for my students and to give them hope for a brighter future. The realization of the role education would play became clear to me when I discovered that the students’ future plans were to seek employment at the local “chicken house”. After I realized exactly what that was, my eyes were opened to exactly what this minimum wage job would lead to for them. I taught seventh through twelfth grades, and the classes included both boys and girls. Starting that day, every skill I knew and every objective I taught became a real-life activity in my former home economics classroom. I was determined to expose them to all the world could offer outside that community.
The courses were skill-based and allowed students to work at an individualized pace. None of the students were hardly ever working on the same level; technically, I rarely knew who the special education students were because the assignments were hands-on and engaged the students to perform at their level with support from me. I introduced research, with a strong writing component, which required students to discover information as evidence of the topic. The most relevant aspect of those classes were captured outside the classroom with frequent field trips, labs, creative products and by increasingly high expectations. Failure was not an option.
Although this school community was 99% African American, it did not matter to me or cause me to distort the curriculum; it only made it more rigorous. This further created a deeper desire in me to offer options for a future they had not previously thought they deserved. Personal development was a part of every lecture and presentation in the classroom.
Now, over 30 years later, our schools and communities are more segregated than ever. Students of these same demographics are still struggling. The rate of change for families of poverty has not decreased for communities of color. It is still taboo to discuss how different the expectations, resources, improvements, and supports are within these communities. A state report card is published each year for the schools in these communities, so we are very much aware that there are problems because these schools consistently fail to achieve at the level of white communities. The conversation and rationale for the failure of these schools are frequently linked to poverty. Although poverty is a factor, it is not the reason for the lack of performance in schools with large populations of students of color. The elements impacting these students lie deeper than simply poverty. The root cause lies within the systemic elements of our society and beneath the surface of the conversations we refuse to have within our organizations. The truth to improving all of the facets that ail our communities, our schools, and our society is the critical conversation which hinders transformation—equality. Equality which levels the playing field for all through a wholesome quality of life.
The truth of the matter is students can achieve their dreams of success if they are loved, supported, and exposed to resources such as scholarships, college admissions, military recruiters, apprenticeship programs and community college offerings. All students want success, but without support and guidance from individuals outside of their own community it is not possible. Fear of the unknown elements is a barrier to moving beyond their current circumstance. The fact is those students did go outside of the community to attend college, the military, and jobs with opportunities for advancement. Their successes were nothing less than the basic expectations all parents want for their children. They are doctors, teachers, administrators, computer scientists, auto mechanics, factory workers for automakers, military officers, realtors, entrepreneurs, investors, business owners, contractors, and the list goes on and on. They are not struggling on minimum wage earnings or living in poverty. They are productive citizens of our society, just as we should desire of all children.
-Dr. Evelyn Nettles-Hines, Birmingham City Schools