I remember the surprising sense of loss I felt as my son let go of my hand and walked into his elementary school as a first-grader. Summer had come and gone, and with it went the last remnants of our precious preschool era. No more half days, meal reports, or nap times. On that day, my son stepped onto a path that will eventually lead to higher education and the launch of his adult life. Once your child is in elementary school, you are truly in the thick of it. At school, our kids face bullies, crushes, substitute teachers, report cards, and the overwhelming pressure to achieve. As parents raising children who face different realities than their non-Black peers, our most critical roles are being their fierce advocates.
We face an additional reality when we send our children off to school each day. Nationally, Black graduation rates still lag behind that of white students, and white students are 1.5 times more likely to hold an undergraduate degree than Black students. This disparity doesn't exist because Black students are less capable, but often because our children are less supported, treated with less empathy, and more likely to be seen as troublemakers.
My son's early educational career was a daunting transition for me, especially as a single, co-parenting mom. I learned to lean into my school community, to stay proactively informed, and to speak up when things looked or felt wrong. There is so much I wish I knew that very first day of school four years ago, and I'm sure there are parents out there right now feeling just as lost as I did (and still do). I asked a few experts about some of the things I've learned along the way to hone in on how parents can navigate the choppy waters of K-12 education.
Speak Up and Often
If you think or know that your child has been treated unfairly, don't hesitate to address it. School environments of all kinds can present bias, racial and gender-based microaggressions, and discrimination. If your child tells you they have had a negative experience, validate and affirm their perspective and talk to their teacher.
Dr. Jon Paul Higgins, Ph.D., is a longtime social justice advocate who teaches social-emotional learning (SEL) and cultural competency to educators and stressed the importance of parent involvement in curriculum. "Parents need to know what the lesson plans look like and what kind of engagement and curriculum is being taught," says Dr. Higgins. "They also need to know what type of bias training is being held in the schools."
Look for This Red Flag: Poor Communication
When touring new schools, be sure to ask about how the school communicates with parents. Schools that don't have a reliable method of contacting parents and sharing announcements should be questioned. You should be able to communicate with your child's teacher, ask questions about homework, and request time with staff as needed. Poor communication can also hinder community building and alienate families who need the most support.
Don't Be Afraid to Outsource
Even in the most enriching educational environments, your child might not be getting what they need. During the pandemic, I sought out tutors of color and extracurricular classes on platforms like Outschool to keep my son engaged in learning.
Toni Rochelle is an educational activist and the family liaison for Oakland Reach, a fellowship program in Oakland, Calif. that helps families navigate and get the most out of the public school system. "While you should be able to find everything you need for your child to thrive within your school, the fact is that sometimes schools fall short," says Rochelle. "You'll need to look outside the school for more opportunities for your child and support for you as a parent." Programs like Oakland Reach can serve as resources and are often free, low cost and available to parents who ask.
Show Up How and When You Can
As busy parents, time is a precious commodity and keeping up with school activities and news can feel like a full-time job. It can be impossible to attend every PTA meeting, every town hall, every school bake sale and join every fundraiser. However, it's hard to advocate for your child if you don't know what's going on at school.
Studies show parents of Black K-12 students are highly engaged in our children's learning, specifically by supporting learning at home and providing educational opportunities out in the real world. However, to bridge the cultural gap between what our parental involvement looks like and what the education system responds to when it comes to the needs of our children requires an added approach. Make an effort to show up for your school community, but be realistic about what you can do. Be kind to yourself when you can't do it all.
I don't automatically step in when things go wrong. When appropriate, I encourage my son to advocate for himself. We've talked about organizing petitions, writing letters and respectfully asking questions when things don't feel right. Rochelle agrees that this kind of support should begin as early as possible.
"This needs to start from the beginning of your child's school journey. You need to set them on the right path from day one," she says. It's never too early to empower our kids to use their voices.
Center Your Child's Mental Health
Suicide rates among Black children have increased over 70 percent since the 90s. Responding to this trend means not only asking our kids how they feel at school, but paying attention to signs of depression, such as physical pain. "Most Black youth identify things like stomach aches and headaches when depressed or anxious," says Jaynay Johnson, a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in suicide and depression in children and teens.
Johnson suggests parents keep an open dialog with teachers and even suggest things that work at home. Create a partnership with your child's teachers to ensure their environment benefits their mental health.
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