August means so many things to me. Football season is back and soon autumn will be knocking at our door, bringing with it crisp leaves and warm turtleneck sweaters. This month also marks the return of school.
Before I became a parent, back-to-school season was a largely nostalgic time to purchase superfluous office supplies and contemplate applying to graduate school. But now, it truly is a time to stock up on no. 2 pencils, rulers and lunch boxes. It is also a time to prepare myself, as many other black parents do, for some of the unique challenges that face our children throughout the school year.
Last year my son Logan started school as the youngest in his class. Unlike his peers, this was his first daily classroom setting. Having forgone day care in favor of keeping him at home, I discovered quickly how I had not prepared him for this environment. I had peppered his days with trips to the U.S. Botanical Garden and Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. We practiced our numbers by counting airplanes that would take off and land at Ronald Reagan National Airport. His classroom had been the city.
So when he was forced to adapt to a traditional school setting, he struggled. He wandered the room while the instructor taught, bothered the other students and wouldn’t finish his lunch on time.
A couple of weeks into the school year, I got the sinking feeling that Logan was causing problems for his teacher. I could tell that she was a patient person, but she seemed frustrated with him. I then made it my personal mission to bond with his teacher by coming early each day before school started to chat her up. I wanted her to know that Logan was supported and that my husband and I were willing to do whatever we could to ease his transition.
After a few weeks, things changed. He transformed from the problem child to a beloved member of the classroom. He flourished academically and began to thrive within the structured environment.
I can’t help but wonder how differently things would have gone had I not been almost annoyingly present in the classroom until things smoothed out.
This got me thinking about other issues that parents of African American children face. Should black parents worry about things that other parents don’t? In my experience, the answer is a resounding yes. Here are three tips from Washington area parents and experts for helping our kids thrive this school year.
Be an advocate
Fairfax County parent Nicole Cober-Page’s 15-year-old son Jordan made national headlines in the spring when he denied a teacher’s request to read a Langston Hughes poem “blacker.” When Jordan told his mother about the incident, Cober-Page immediately contacted the school’s administration, which confronted her son’s English teacher. As a parent, it was important for Cober-Page to empower her son and support him as an advocate.
“I encouraged him to speak about this so he could help other students and stand up for himself against wrongdoing,” Cober-Page says. “The teacher was removed from the school for her violations.”
At home, Cober-Page says parents should “encourage your child’s voice. They should have tools given by you to speak up, respectfully, when something feels wrong.” She also urges parents to teach children to know their rights as students. “Show him or her the ways to recognize discrimination or bullying and communicate always with you,” she says.
Build cultural exchanges
Gasa Anderson, vice president of the parenting group Silver Spring Mocha Moms, says it’s important to build bonds with other black families, especially when attending a majority white school. “I believe that African American parents need to make sure they build those ‘cultural exchanges’ outside of school,” Anderson says. “Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops, church and mothers’ groups can aide the child in having and maintaining a healthy self-image,” she says. “If your child is one of 20 [black children], you can’t always rely on the school.”
Focus on black boys
With black women outnumbering black men in graduating high school and college, it’s important for parents to be especially vigilant when raising boys. In his report “Breaking Barriers: Plotting the Path to Academic Success for School Age African-American Males,” Ivory Toldson studied the variables that lead to success or failure for black male students.
“Parents with high-achieving kids visit school eight times per year for sporting events, school plays, PTA and parent-teacher meetings, etc.,” Toldson says. “Lower-achieving kids have parents who visit three times per year on average. So showing up is important, and kids don’t get mistreated as much [when parents show up].”
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