I'm going to tell you a story.
This is a story about a family, a principal and a school.
This is the story of a Black family navigating the unwieldy public education system.
This is the story of an African American family in Western Washington seeking to thrive despite many layers of systemic racism and COVID-19 and the leader partnering with them along the way.
I first met Wanda* at a local restaurant. Slender with long box braids and tan-brown skin, she was serving with a smile though she was tired, overworked, and underpaid. It was a joyous surprise to meet her again at Back to School Night during my first few days as principal of Franklin Elementary School. Seeing her gave me a strong feeling of responsibility as I felt our community connection through experience.
She gathered her three sons and pressed through the crowd toward me. Her eyes – hopeful, yet guarded – appraised my brown skin, my voluminous textured hair, my wide, crinkly-eyed smile. Searching for care and commitment, she looked for my soul to give her sons a chance. Wanda introduced me to her boys, even the oldest son who had moved on to middle school. She said to them, “This is your new principal. She’s going to look after you.” And then to me, with a trembling yet clear voice “Aren’t you?” To which I replied, “Yes, ma’am. I’ll make sure your sons are well here.” We held each other’s gaze and I silently promised to partner with her in navigating this school that had held hardship for this family.
Wanda is a spiritual warrior. And, so am I.
I had seen her youngest son on my first visit to Franklin. He was standing in the hallway noisily crying. He had no words for the teacher who stepped in the hallway to speak to him and offer him a granola bar. When his chuffing tears continued unabated, the teacher re-entered the classroom and left him in the hallway. I wondered what could have possibly happened to cause this child to be so dysregulated. When I inquired of a staff member passing by, I was told that he expressed himself this way regularly. This third grader was regularly scream-crying in the hallway. So, when did he get to learn? I learned that this student is medically fragile and is severely impacted cognitively and physically when his blood sugar drops.
I prayed for that child. I could not let him go in my spirit.
Wanda was asking me if I would uphold the system that had her son despondent, dishonored and alone in a hallway. She hoped for better from me, a young, Black woman with kind eyes, a member of her community, an advocate. I couldn’t let her down. I had to change the school.
So, I took action. I centered critical race theory in my leadership practice, modeling and expecting culturally responsive pedagogy in classrooms and throughout the campus. I shifted family engagement practices to elevate the status of students, parents and community members in the school, even to the point of asking stakeholders at all levels to be key decision-makers for Franklin’s strategic plan and operations. I prioritized a “whole child” ethos that changed systems and language from PBIS to MTSS to recess to discipline practices. Through intentional moves that required staff to act with justice, engage with families as colleagues, and honor the efforts of students, community members and themselves, I was told that the school was changing. Staff members said it – sometimes with smiles and sometimes with frowns. But when Wanda said it – with gravity and tears – I wept.
But this education system reaches and snatches far beyond one school.
Wanda met with me one day to talk through an incident with staff members that happened to her eldest son in his middle school lunchroom. Her voice quaked as she asked me, “Is this what’s supposed to happen?” “No,” I responded, “but it often happens.” During that conversation, Wanda shared with me that she is pursuing a career in education, “because I need to know what’s really happening from the inside.”
A few months later, her youngest son was denied his preferred meal in our cafeteria. The child came to my office, swiping angry tears from his eyes, and struggled to articulate his concern. “I can’t eat this,” he said, pointing to the turkey sandwich, apple and soy milk on his Styrofoam tray. After speaking with the nutrition services operators, the child was still not given his preferred meal. I called Wanda. “I’m on my way,” she said.
What is it about food that is a sticking point for so many of us? Why is food used to control, punish, manipulate or oppress? Why wasn’t this sensitive child treated with gentleness?
There is a particular pressure experienced by school leaders to support the system, uphold the patriarchy and white supremacist hegemony, to maintain the prevailing logic that upholds a hierarchy that puts a disabled black boy and his mother near the bottom of systemic regard. Add to that, the pressure of being a young, Black, woman leader. A person who, without the title, would not fare well on that same hierarchy. How do I get the support of the staff when I take the side of the students and families, when I thwart the order that has guided decisions in this space?
I had to have a frank discussion with myself. I reminded myself why I am in my position in the first place. I reminded myself that people have prayed for me to be strong and courageous. I reminded myself that I made a promise to this family and to this community that I would support their children toward wellbeing. I reminded myself that my responsibility is to lead my staff to their own generational wellbeing - even if they don’t yet know what that looks like in the context of equity and justice. These are my people.
When Franklin closed because of COVID-19 Pandemic, Wanda was the first parent to reach out to me. It was four weeks into quarantine and Wanda’s sons were thriving. She wrote:
“Our family has done a great deal of conversations surrounding the remote learning experience for students currently and we are considering maintaining this for Both boys moving forward in the next school year.
Could you direct me to the Washington State online schooling resource so I can get them ready for this transition. I want to make sure they will be continuing to the 5th grade and so forth.
I will be privileged to assist them with assignments. I’ve witnessed tremendous growth since the remote learning has started. They are more focused and willing to do the assignments without frustration.”
I learned from Wanda and many other parents of color that they were unwilling to send their children to school to battle the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and racism. These parents did not trust that a school system that would not give a child food that they had available to others would keep their child safe from life-threatening disease.
As a member of the school system, I felt ashamed and deeply humbled. There is no “enough” in the efforts toward educational equity. I had done a lot, but I had not yet done enough to allow this dedicated and critical parent to confidently leave her sons in the hands of my public school system.
As an advocate within the community, I felt gratified and deeply humbled. This dedicated and critical parent trusted me to help her navigate other waters of the public school system for the benefit of her sons. I have proven myself to be kinfolk.
So, I helped this and other parents understand their homeschooling options.
And, my staffing model fluctuated due to enrollment changes.
I can accept the challenges of this system when I remember what I believe. I believe that the purpose of the public school system is to ensure generational wellbeing. If that means that a family chooses to homeschool so that the children can learn in a fully affirming environment, it is my purpose and responsibility to support that effort.
Wanda asked me if I would love her children. Loving them may mean letting them go today and persistently, determinedly shifting this public school system one day at a time so that it knows how to support and educate their family. Our lives are entwined in community and in futurity. That is what it means to be kin.
Equity-focused leadership is not race-neutral, nor is it race-determined. I share this story to provide a model that can be followed no matter the race of the leader or the community that leader serves. Equity-focused leadership requires that we are embedded in our communities and understand that the wellbeing of the least-advantaged is the wellbeing of the community as a whole. It is relational and honest. It requires that leaders engage ethically and transparently, even when their choices are unpopular. Equity-focused leadership is a grind, not a trend. A leader of color doesn’t make the leadership equity-focused.
I share this story so you can add to this work of generational wellbeing.
We have nothing to lose but our chains.
And may all the little children who are finna change the world say, “Ashe and Amen”.
*The identity of the parent was changed to protect privacy.