Note: I wrote this post as a momma to two mixed race boys (white/African-American) and so you may notice this piece focuses largely on race, but I hope that some of questions and ideas shared will be relevant to parents of multicultural children too!
Last spring our family moved to a new home. We didn’t move far – just far enough to change school districts. I’ll admit that the opportunity to choose our “dream home” was appealing, but the real reason we moved was for our kids: We wanted them to attend a school with more diversity.
I realize that when it comes to choosing a school for kids of color, some families don’t have much of a choice. Geography, jobs, finances, and other family circumstances can all influence where we live and the options we have for where our children spend their school days. But, if you do have some choices, there are things that parents raising multicultural kids or children of color might want to consider. And, even if your options are limited, these are still things you’ll probably want to keep on your radar, so I’ve made sure to include some tips and resources on the list too!
1. How diverse is the student body and what does that diversity look like?
As teens, youth of color often begin having personal, direct experiences with prejudice, stereotyping, and racism. As part of the process of racial identity development, they often respond to this increased awareness of racism by rejecting white culture (for a time), exploring their heritage and culture, and focusing on relationships with other kids in their same ethnic group. (This is called Immersion in models of black racial identity development.) I want my boys to have the opportunity to develop friendships with kids who can relate to their experiences as mixed race individuals and African-Americans, who will “get it” when they have difficult race-related experiences, and who can be sources of support as they figure out what it means.
Beyond having classmates from the same racial or ethnic group, going to school with kids from a variety of backgrounds can help kids understand that there are many ways to be in the world, that our differences are part of what makes us each unique and interesting, and that we are more alike than different. I am thrilled that, by changing schools sooner rather than later, my boys have the opportunity to experience diversity and have friends with variety of backgrounds from an early age.
Tip: Demographic data for school districts can be easily found on-line, often through the state Department of Education or websites like School Digger or Public Schools K12.
Resource: I’m currently reading “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria?” by Beverly Tatum and highly recommend it for insight into racial identity development across the life span and among teens in particular!
2. How diverse is the school staff?
Research hasn’t really delved into whether teachers of color are more effective role models for kids of color (e.g., more motivating, more inspirational), but just as I want my children to grow up with a diverse group of peers, I also want them to be influenced by adults from a range of backgrounds!
In addition, a diverse teaching staff may be one solution to the discouraging problem that keeps coming up in the news: Research shows that educators often have lower expectations for black and brown students. Research has also shown that black and Hispanic students often perform better academically in schools with a diverse teaching staff, particularly when they have teachers of the same race/ethnicity. There are a number of possible reasons for this. For one, same-race teachers generally have higher expectations of their African-American and Hispanic students than do white teachers. In addition, teachers’ ability to “match” the students culturally, creating a bridge between home and school, and the potential for teachers to serve as advocates within the school benefit minority students’ school adjustment and academic work.
Tip: Finding a school with a truly diverse teaching staff may be a challenge, but we can do our best to fight the possibility of low expectations by developing positive, collaborative relationships with educators at our school and cultivating a strong home-school connection.
Resource: Check out “Diversifying The Teaching Force: An Examination of Major Arguments” by Ana Maria Villegas and Jacqueline Jordan Irvine for an overview of the impact of teacher race.
3. Are school personnel sensitive to culture and race?
This isn’t something you can likely determine by digging around the internet, unless your potential school has done something newsworthy (good or bad). Talking to other parents, particularly parents of multicultural kids or kids of color, and asking about their experience can shed some light on how tuned in school staff tend to be. You might also ask whether teachers receive any specific training or support to increase their cultural awareness and sensitivity.
When we finally settled into our new home in our new school district last spring, we soon realized that attending a more diverse school does not necessarily mean that incidents of racism or insensitivity will never occur. They will. I now assume that situations will arise and that we will need to be the family that speaks up to help raise sensitivity and awareness. At our old school, the situation was an activity at the end of a unit studying the Underground Railroad – a school-wide scavenger hunt which included some kids pretending to be slaves. (Yep, seriously.) At our new school, a PTA letter announced an upcoming “Chinese Auction.” In both cases, the school was responsive when we gently and respectfully explained why there was a problem – I think being gentle and respectful is the key.
Resource: Check out “When It’s Time To Talk Race With The School” about our experience with the Underground Railroad situation and how we handled it.
4. To what extent does the school use materials and a curriculum that honors different cultures and experiences, as opposed to a Euro-centric point of view?
Find out by asking school administrators, teachers, or department chairs directly. If your child is already enrolled in a particular school, pay attention to the schoolwork and materials he or she brings home. Ask questions to find out what she learned about Martin Luther King Junior or Christopher Columbus or winter holidays. If you are really proactive, ask the teacher how a particular topic will be approached before it is taught in the classroom. I was so happy to learn that my son’s first grade teacher didn’t paint a heroic picture of Columbus, but actually talked to the students about the experiences of the Native Americans when Europeans arrived in North America!
Tip: Share resources with teachers! Frances has a great post right here on Multicultural Kid Blogs with ideas for school staff that could be shared at the start of the school year. She also suggests donating books, if you are able, which is a great way to introduce more diverse materials into the classroom!
Resource: SETCLAE (Self-Esteem Through Culture Leads to Academic Excellence) is an Afrocentric, multicultural, language arts and social studies curriculum that has been adopted in over 5000 schools and is popular among black families that homeschool. I bet some of you have some great resources you can share as well!
5. What are the school’s discipline policies? Are they clear, fair, and reasonable?
Research has also shown that black and Latino students are more likely to be suspended and expelled than white students (“disproportionate exclusion”), and it isn’t simply because they misbehave more. As a mom, I worry about whether my boys will be treated differently if they get into trouble, because their race may affect how school staff perceives their behavior. It’s a frustrating thought, but I take comfort in knowing I will be my child’s biggest advocate when I need to be!
While schools aren’t likely to publicize data on discipline of different racial groups, you can certainly ask a school administrator things like:
- Do you have any positive behavior programs in place in the school? (Research suggests that programs like School-wide Positive Behavior Support may help reduce disproportionate exclusion.)
- How often are students suspended or expelled? Under what circumstances? (A recent letter from the Obama administration to school officials cited a study finding that 95% of out of school suspensions are for minor infractions – which should not be the case! Policies that limit suspension and explusion to extreme, specific situations will probably reduce the likelihood of disproportionate exclusion.)
As parents of multiracial or multicultural kids, there is so much to think about when it comes to our children and their school environment, much of which goes beyond the formal education that they will receive!
My final tip: Get involved. Volunteer in the classroom if possible. Attend school board meetings and join the PTA. Cultivate collaborative relationships with teachers and administrators. This will increase our awareness and understanding of what goes on in the school, and by establishing ourselves as true partners with the school we put ourselves in a position to help create change when and where it is needed.
What questions or suggestions would you add to the list? Do you have other concerns or worries about school?
You can also read Ellie’s companion article: Thoughts on the Value of School Diversity
Ellie blogs at Musing Momma, where she shares inspiration for happy parenting and reflects on life as momma in a mixed race family. She has a Ph.D. in psychology and worked for several years as a child therapist, which was great preparation for motherhood but still no guarantee she knows what the heck she’s doing at any given time. Ellie resides in central Pennsylvania with her husband, their two adorably mischievous boys (ages 4 and 8), and their sweet, arthritic dog (age 84, in dog years). Ellie’s favorite place to hang out on-line (besides her blog) is Facebook and she hopes you’ll join her there!