Nikkia Rowe is the principal of Renaissance. She arrived there nearly three years ago, and knew immediately that the students there needed for more than academics. Vargas writes:
“These kids don’t look like kids,” she told her staff at the time. “They look like vets coming home from foreign wars. At any given moment, something can trigger them.”
In the following post, Rowe writes movingly about her school and the challenges she, her staff and her students face every day, a situation common in many schools around the country. She also writes about what she believes policymakers must do to help these students.
By Nikkia Rowe
Renaissance Academy is a traditional high school (grades 9 through 12) situated in the West Baltimore community of Upton/Druid Heights. The school is a second home to 287 students who come from the poorest, most violent and blighted neighborhoods in the city.
Our students walk through the doors of the schoolhouse each day carrying a crushing and ever-evolving emotional load that interferes with learning readiness. On any given day, one student may have been kicked out of the house after a fight with mom and slept outside, one could have witnessed a stabbing in the housing development courtyard, and one could be experiencing a week-long headache caused by a tooth desperately in need of dental attention.
At Renaissance, this is our everyday.
And at Renaissance, every single day, we work to triage the trauma and to meet the basic needs of our students so that they are able to learn. We love our students fiercely in the face of life-or-death circumstances.
Many would prefer to assume that Renaissance Academy is the exception to the rule but we are not. We are the rule. Public education in America is stagnant and those in power refuse to respond to the evolving needs of students across the country, especially in urban school districts. There are schools all over the country fighting, just like Renaissance, to save the lives of children that society has consistently undervalued, hidden, and avoided—children just like Khalil Bridges. His story is not unique—and this simple fact should embarrass us all.
Khalil’s devastating hardship and struggle is the creation of those who control systems. Outcomes for young men of color will only truly change when we all have the courage to make radical change to challenge and restructure the current systems.
Saul Williams, a poet, a genius, said, “We are all here for a reason on a particular path; you don’t need a curriculum to know you are part of the math.”
Let us explore the math of a student like Khalil Bridges, an African American male facing unprecedented obstacles, who attends Renaissance Academy High School in West Baltimore. At his birth, as with any other child, as with your own child, the perspective of his potential was infinite. The x will represent our child’s potential in our simulated equation. The y is our outcome, the end of the journey, the desired result. The variable g is representative of society’s complacency, k represents antiquated systems, and h is the lack of investment.
There are endless variables that could have had a negative impact on Khalil’s outcome. For example, the condition of his school which sits on the third floor of a decaying building; a building in which rats run rampant, mold grows on walls, windows don’t shut and ceiling panels spontaneously fall. The current state of education of many of our nation’s youngest citizens is an atrocity and some of our older citizens choose to use the tools of incompetence to fix it.
(g) society’s complacency
The nation of excuses:
“It’s not my child.” Read: “It’s not my problem.”
“I grew up, worked hard, and made it—why can’t he or she?” Read: “It is the child’s fault if he or she does not meet with success.”
“They are just like the children in The Wire, they’re hopeless.” Read: “They are fictional characters and their hardship isn’t real, therefore they are not worthy of my investment.”
“I am just one person.” Read: “I have no power to make a difference in my community.”
“It is the Democrats’ fault.” Read: “Pass the buck to the left, they created this problem and they should fix it.”
“It is the Republicans’ fault.” Read: “Pass the buck to the right, they created this problem and they should fix it.”
(k) antiquated systems
The students at Renaissance Academy and the hundreds of thousands like them do not need a handout or the sympathy of others, they need an opportunity. As citizens of the “greatest nation” in the world we should all demand that they have access to an opportunity. The systems that perpetuate the status quo for students like Khalil are rarely challenged and never amended or revisited. Policy development designed to ensure mass incarceration, deep generational poverty, patterns of police brutality and restricted opportunity for upward mobility should be reexamined, challenged and changed.
(h) lack of investment
I have not time to mince words nor to sugarcoat the truth. Truth is truth and the truth is that many Americans do not see value in investing in boys of color. The incoming mayor of the City of Baltimore must courageously commit funding to efforts like President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper Initiative” by strategically creating a cabinet-level position to develop, facilitate, fund, and implement city-wide initiatives to support African American males, as has occurred in Oakland. Similarly, our governor must dedicate state dollars to address the woeful opportunity gap for this challenged demographic as has occurred in New York. Why is this urgent? We have a choice. We can invest on the front end in quality educational experiences, college access, and employment and career pathways, or we shall certainly pay on the back end with our children’s loss of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Are these truths not enduring for every American? Are these truths not self-evident for every American?
These truths are constant when we remove the complacency, re-conceptualize the systems and increase the investment. As citizens of the United States of America, whether we agree on how to achieve it or not, we want all of our nation’s children to attain a positive outcome. This right is endowed to all people regardless of socio-economic status, race or ethnicity, political party affiliation, geographic location, sexual orientation, religion, or any other factor that has been impelled to separate and stratify a person’s place in our society.
After all, West Baltimore is a part of the “shining city on the hill,” and every member of our great nation is part of the math.