The 9-year-old just had to see her locker, one she had already envisioned decorating with wallpaper and glittery things, before she was ready to say goodbye to her father.
The 12-year-old was a bit more hesitant.
Ivan Hall walked her to class on the first day of school this week and stayed a bit longer because she asked him not to leave. The time turned to 9 a.m., a full 15 minutes past the bell that signaled the start of class. The single father expected someone to nudge him toward the door, but no one did. He said goodbye at 9:10.
Then, as he walked out of the school, he let the tears come.
“It was totally different and what I’ve been working so hard toward,” he said. Already he could see that the Northwest Washington school, where he moved his daughters to this year after growing increasingly frustrated with schools in Southeast Washington, was going to offer a new experience.
“Things were organized,” Hall said of West Education Campus. “They even let us go through the school. They didn’t allow the parents last year to accompany the kids to school on the first day.”
When we discuss school disparities, we tend to focus on the numbers: test scores, the ratio of teachers to students, the number of English-language learners, the percentage of students who qualify for free lunch, the number of Advanced Placement classes and so on.
Those measurements are telling, but what is lost in them are the experiences that define an educational environment and make the difference between propelling students toward success and pulling them back.
This is especially important when we talk about girls of color, who face known risks of being pushed to abandon their education.
They are more likely than their white counterparts to attend schools that don’t have enough resources, face suspension and be held back a grade, according to the National Women’s Law Center, which has led research on the subject.
The organization’s most recent “Let Her Learn” survey found that “black girls were more likely than any other group of girls to see themselves as leaders. However, in the school setting, assertiveness can often be misidentified as ‘talking back’ or ‘defiance,’ which puts them at greater risk for inequitable discipline.” Latinas, who are also at risk of implicit bias because they are often seen as aggressive and promiscuous, reported in the survey being harassed because of their names and family origins. They have the lowest rate of participation in pre-college entrance exams.
But the survey also found this: Most girls of color want to get a diploma and go on to higher education. Nine out of 10 girls across all the races said they want personalized graduation plans and help applying for college.
Often I am asked how I ended up going from one of the poorest performing schools in San Antonio to Stanford University.
The answer is complex, filled with a mix of “despite” and “because of” and the ever-present awareness of how easily my life could have turned out differently.
I attended schools where almost everyone qualified for free lunch, and weapons and drugs were enough of a concern that ropes were strung through the lockers. We didn’t get to decorate ours with glittery anything.
When my seventh-grade classmate was killed at a birthday party by gang members, the announcement also was made at the high school because administrators rightly suspected the assailants probably attended there. Later as a student at that high school, I thought nothing of giving a friend clean needles for her birthday because of her drug addiction and laughed when the valedictorian of a higher grade told me he took the bus home with a butter knife in his shoe. Now, I see how distorted both those details seem.
Even so, when I think about overcoming challenges, none of that chaos feels a burden in my memories. Instead my thoughts immediately gravitate toward those moments when I felt the opinions and expectations of adults on me.
I think of the eighth-grade social studies teacher who assigned us to write an essay for a contest — and when mine won, pulled me aside to ask if my mother had written it.
I think of the middle-school home economics teacher who seemed to draw joy in humiliating me. She once had me stand in front of the class, so she could show why short girls should never wear short skirts. Another time, she yanked a brush through my unwieldy hair in front of everyone, declaring that I must not know how to comb it myself. When a good friend of mine stole the candy that teacher kept in a back room as a quiet defense of me, it felt justified. Adult me now sees how that action probably only solidified that teacher’s low opinion of us. Young me appreciated the sweet taste of friendship in that Snickers bar.
I think of the high school counselor who refused to give me the vouchers I needed to help pay for my out-of-state college applications unless I agreed to apply to a Texas school. She explained that if I even got into Columbia, Dartmouth or Stanford, I wouldn’t last more than a year before coming home.
Thankfully, I had some incredible teachers who countered the negative ones and supportive family members who pushed me to want more than what I saw around me. But so many smart, talented girls of color with whom I went to school did not have those advantages, and I often think of what they might have become if they had.
Ivan Hall said he wants for his African American daughters, Isys and Imya, who are in fourth and seventh grades, what other parents take for granted.
“I hope that they find normalcy in a calm environment,” he said. “I hope they’re not seeing fighting every day and kids spitting on teachers and people bringing weapons to school. I want them to see that’s not normal.”
He wants them to discover what they love to do, he said, and find the guidance they need to pursue it.
He also wants to see the neighborhood where he grew up and had hoped to raise his girls get a school it deserves.
Hall won the school lottery to allow his daughters to attend West, which serves a mostly low-income student population but is located in a wealthier part of the city than where Hall lives. Hall also is willing to drive 45 minutes each way until he can move into an apartment in Northwest Washington. But before reaching that point, his daughters attended several schools in Southeast, and he spent much of the previous school year speaking out against their last one, Democracy Prep. The school recently announced that it will close at the end of this school year because it failed to “provide Congress Heights scholars the school they deserve.”
In testimony Hall gave to the D.C. Council’s education committee earlier this year, he described a school environment that lacked hot water at times, employed teachers who responded to students with curse words and name-calling, and fostered bullying that allowed a group of older students to assault his then-6-year-old daughter and lock her in a bathroom.
“Just last month a student elbowed her in the nose,” he told the committee speaking of his younger daughter. “She went to the nurse for relief only to find out that they still have no ice packs. Instead they gave her a frozen bottle of water that they use for incidents like this, no ice packs. While receiving relief, a staff member began to taunt my daughter, telling her there is always something with her. . . . Another staff member referred to her as a ‘drama queen.’ To be taunted by an adult is unacceptable.”
Democracy Prep will seek a new organization to run the campus for the next academic year.
For the sake of the city — and the 600 students who are mostly black, from low-income families and can’t all go to a school in another part of the city — that organization needs to be prepared to do a much better job than its predecessor.
We don’t need to look at the shockingly low performance of the school’s students on national standardized tests, or its high suspension rates, to see that.
It should be telling enough that a father cried because he was able to walk his daughters to class this week and felt for the first time in years that, just maybe, they will be okay.