I realize that, in 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 our children spend their school days. However, if you do have some choices, there are several things you might want to consider. Even with limited options, parents raising multicultural kids or children of color can keep these issues on their radar.
Note: I wrote this post as a momma to two mixed race boys (white/African-American), so you may notice this piece focuses largely on race. But, I hope 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. Here are some of the issues that were important in our decision, along with some tips and helpful resources.
How Diverse Is the Student Body and What Does that Diversity Look Like?
Youth of color often have 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 sometimes called Immersion or Immersion-Emersion 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. I also want them to know people who will “get it” when they have difficult race-related experiences and who can be sources of support as they figure out what that means.
Having classmates from the same racial or ethnic group is important. However, attending school with kids from a variety of backgrounds is also extremely valuable. Such environments help kids understand that there are many ways to be in the world. They learn that our differences are part of what makes each of us unique and interesting. And, they being to realize that we are more alike than different.
In changing schools sooner rather than later, my boys will have more opportunities to experience diversity. And, they will have friends of various backgrounds from an early age.
Resource: I’m currently reading Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria? by Beverly Tatum. I highly recommend it for insight into racial identity development across the life span and among teens in particular! (This is an affiliate link. If you click and purchase, Multicultural Kid Blogs will receive a small commission that will be used to maintain the site.)
How Diverse Is the School Staff?
Recent research has also shown that all students benefit from teachers of color. These effects are even more dramatic for students of color, who show both improved academic performance and increased graduation rates, particularly when teachers are the same race/ethnicity. I definitely want my children to grow up with a diverse group of peers, but I also want adults from a range of backgrounds to influence them.
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. Teachers of color can help reverse this trend in various ways. First, same-race teachers generally have higher expectations of their African-American and Hispanic students than do white teachers. Second, teachers’ ability to “match” the students culturally can help create a bridge between home and school. Finally, teachers of color are often better able to serve as advocates within the school. This can benefit both school adjustment and academic outcomes among minority students.
Tip: Finding a school with a truly diverse teaching staff may be a challenge. However, we can do our best to fight the possibility of low expectations by developing positive, collaborative relationships with school educators. We can also consistently cultivate strong home-school connections.
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.
Are School Personnel Sensitive to Culture and Race?
You probably can’t determine something like this by digging around the internet, unless your potential school has done something newsworthy (good or bad). However, talking to other parents, particularly parents of multicultural kids or kids of color, can help. Asking about their experiences can shed light on how tuned-in school staff tend to be. You can 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 and 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: This Learning for Justice article, “Anti-Racist Work in Schools: Are You in it for the Long Haul?” offers ways to ensure that your school community is truly inclusive and non-discriminatory.
To What Extent Does the School Use Materials and Curricula that Honor Different Cultures and Experiences?
Presenting something beyond the traditional Eurocentric viewpoint is another important component of anti-bias/anti-racist education. Ask school administrators, teachers, or department chairs directly about school materials. Pay attention to the schoolwork your child brings home. Determine what your child is learning, specifically, 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. Instead, the teacher actually talked to students about the experiences of the Native Americans when Europeans arrived in North America!
Tip: Share resources with teachers! This Edutopia article, “Addressing Race and Racism Head-On in the Classroom,” has many tips for educators. If you are able, you can also donate books to the school.
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 thousands of schools and is popular among black families that homeschool. I bet some of you have great resources to share as well!
What Are the School’s Discipline Policies?
Research has long shown that Black and Latino students are more likely to be suspended and expelled than white students. This “disproportionate exclusion” is not because they misbehave more. So, it’s important to be sure that your school’s discipline policies are clear, fair, and reasonable. As a mom, I worry about whether my boys will be treated differently if they get into trouble. I don’t want their race to 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!
Schools aren’t likely to publicize data on discipline of different racial groups. However, 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, and under what circumstances, are students suspended or expelled? Students should not be suspended from school for minor infractions! Policies that limit suspension and expulsion 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. Of course, the formal education they receive is important. But so are many other factors that go beyond that formal education!
My Final Tip
Get involved. If possible, volunteer in the classroom. Attend school board meetings and join the PTA. Cultivate collaborative relationships with teachers and administrators. All these efforts will increase our awareness of and understanding about what goes on in the school. They will also establish us as true partners with the school — which puts us in a better 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?
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