Forgive me if I hope returning schoolchildren experience their most abnormal year yet.
Having survived a pandemic, a makeshift move to remote learning, and minimal socialization, I say they’re owed good karma by the metric ton.
But returning to normal won’t settle that debt.
In Seattle, “normal” has been Black children suspended at three times the rate of white kids. Normal has witnessed nearly a quarter of Black and Latino children off pace to graduate from high school. Normal is a student population made up of 54% children of color being overseen, disciplined and evaluated by teachers who are predominantly white, some of whom will view those students negatively and indifferently.
Our nation’s normal is Black boys being racially profiled while in preschool and Black girls, only 20% of female preschool enrollees, accounting for half of all female student suspensions. Our normal is a Black child repeatedly hearing himself called the n-word at school saying, “I stopped loving myself because the community did not love who I actually was.”
Our problems go beyond one school, one district, or one secretary of education.
“At the end of the day, the point is not to get our community together so that we’re just perfectly fine coping with horrible trauma,” said Sophia Nicholson-Keener, outreach coordinator for NAMI Washington.
“The point is to not have our children be traumatized at all.”
For some parents of color, that means taking their child out of unhealthy school environments and into their own homes, both pre-pandemic and during. In the last two years, Black, Asian and Latino home-school rates have more than quadrupled, according to census data.
Factoring in this increase is a mistrust of an education system that has historically treated children of color, particularly Black children, harshly.
“We’ve opted out of the public schools continuously because we haven’t felt that it would provide the level of support that we needed for our children,” said Angelique Davis, who home-schooled her two children until she recently opted for a private school she says respects their individuality.
Davis, who teaches political science at Seattle University, says although her children had home-school and private-school options available to them because of her family’s financial situation, she understands that not all children do.
It’s a scenario presenting some parents of color with a Faustian bargain. Do you attempt to home-school your children or find alternative methods of education? Or do you roll the dice, putting your children in a situation where they could routinely experience racism?
It’s a question Erin Romanuk hopes families someday won’t need to ask.
Handling discipline for Seattle Public Schools as the student support supervisor for the last five years, Romanuk says the district is trying to develop a “culture of care” co-created with families. It would push toward a more culturally responsive education and prioritize an individual student’s well-being, probing the root cause of behavioral issues.
“We don’t want automatic punitive responses. We want conversations around what is a student’s behavior communicating to us? Even when thinking of failing grades, we want to ask what’s happening,” said Romanuk.
To do that, the district will need buy-in from families, which means overcoming a past of broken promises.
“Seattle has been trying different initiatives since the early ’70s that have not been successful. At what point are these inequities going to stop?” asked Davis. “The [Martin Luther] King [Jr.] quote said that you can’t put a timetable on another man’s freedom. Well, you can’t put a timetable on a child’s education either.”
Donte Felder knows this all too well. A 22-year veteran of Seattle schools who retired from teaching last year, he lost six former students to gun violence and suicide last year. He lost multitudes more to low expectations, disproportionate punishment, and racially incurious teachers throughout his more than two decades.
But he wouldn’t lose her.
Last summer, Felder had a 7-year-old student whose tormented screams belied her physical health.
He wondered how long her internal pain had gone ignored by incurious teachers and a system prioritizing a rise in computational proficiency over emotional competence.
“My observation was of a student who was drowning in loss, and I became curious as to why,” Felder remembers.
He learned she had plummeted into a sea of sorrow caused by her grandmother dying of COVID and her father dying of suicide.
Fully aware of her story, Felder provided her with a new chapter. It came in the form of song lyrics repeated for her every day of class, “I love me so much. I love you so much.”
She had rarely heard those words at school before, and certainly never heard them reinforced. It took awhile, but it eventually led to her overcoming her pain.
Her story is why, as much as I align with those demanding truth in how we tell our nation’s history, racial parity and competency from our school faculty, I’m asking for more:
I’m asking that our educational system’s goal begins and ends with the affirmation of every child’s humanity.