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An educator’s view: After a year of disrupted learning, 7 things Black parents can do to make sure their child will thrive at school

Isis Spann | May 10, 2021

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Isis Spann

As a Black educator and the mother of Black children, I can tell you that the last year of disrupted schooling has had a profound effect on all of the country’s children, and Black children in particular. It has disrupted the learning of my students, my daughters and my son — children who don’t have access to private schools, private tutors and well run learning pods. Black children in this country have been missing out on an adequate education long before COVID-19, and if you are like me, as a Black parent, you might wonder what you can do, right now, to make sure any challenges your child encountered this year don’t get worse.

Here are seven practices to keep in mind when dealing with your child’s school, not just now, but always, when it comes to your child’s academic progress.

1. Ask questions about your child’s learning level

Just because your child is in fifth grade, that does not mean he or she is learning at a fifth-grade level. It is very important for families to know what their child’s instructional level is. For example, a third-grader reading on a first-grade level has an instructional level of first grade, even though, when schools first closed down — and even until the present day — educators were sending home links and assignments based on grade level. Those assignments were not personalized and did not assist students in being successful, especially if they were already behind or beyond grade level. If we are truly going to move Black children forward, we can’t be ashamed or ignore these gaps. We have to acknowledge them, empower students so they can learn new skills, and hold educators and parents accountable for monitoring those skills.

2. Know what assessments your child is taking and how they are being measured

As a parent, you should know when a quiz, classroom test, district test or state exam is taking place so that all accommodations are in place. If your child has an individualized education program (IEP) or 504 plan, ensure that he or she is in the proper testing environment. Once the assessment is complete, ask the teacher which standards your child needs to work on, what percentile he or she falls into, and what type of instruction the teacher plans to deliver so your child will show growth on the next assessment. Having information on how or if your child is mastering content is key when planning to help at home or hire a tutor.

3. Request weekly updates and progress on your child

As a classroom teacher, I send home weekly progress reports because I do not believe that report cards should be the only time when families are informed about how well their child is doing in class. This is extremely important, particularly for Black parents. Schools and teachers often make the time to call about real or perceived behavior or disruptive issues — but rarely contact families about academics. The same energy that is put into calling because Mia is acting up can be used for a call about how Mia needs to work on adding fractions with uncommon denominators. These reports do not have to be long, drawn-out documents, but can instead be what is referred to commonly as a “glow and a grow.” This is an area where Mia really excelled this week, and one where Mia needs to improve. During this pandemic, we have seen the lack of communication increase between schools and families. Without communication, we set Black children up to fail.

4. Share with the teacher the ways in which your child learns best

Parents love their children but may not know how they learn best. During virtual instruction, some Black children have thrived and some have not. Some families have had to choose to mask their children and send them back for in-person classes because virtual learning was not a good fit for them. As a Black parent, you have the right to make suggestions and give feedback to educators to help them help your child. As a Black mom and a Black educator, I welcome this feedback. I know how to teach children, but the only children I know everything about are my own. A strong educator is your partner. Share all the information you can.

5. Request special accommodations, evaluations and assessments

While it is common to label Black children with a host of behavioral or developmental disorders, all Black children do not have ADHD or a similar challenge. That does not mean, however, that they don’t experience issues that can affect their learning. I suggest eye exams, dental exams and mental health evaluations for students I believe need them, and as a Black parent, you should feel no stigma doing the same. There have been Black boys and girls who failed classes not because they lacked brilliance, but because they’d never had an eye exam and could not see the board at the front of the room. I’ve taught students who have had so much dental pain that they could not focus on learning.These are real issues that impact the education of Black children, and we have to address them, not ignore them. If there is a counselor or mental health specialist in your school, make sure your child has access (even if your child or loved one is learning remotely).

6. Understand that mathematics instruction is just as important as reading instruction

I am almost positive you know your child’s Lexile reading score, have attended a reading night or have been given tons of reading resources. But what about math? Reading and math literacy are both vital, and Black children do not need to only “read to succeed.” When doing math, make sure your child is showing where the answer came from, either by writing it in a notebook or talking you through it. Make sure the teacher is taking just as much time for small groups in math as for reading groups.

7. Get an advocate

Every parent, especially Black parents who have children in low- or underperforming schools, should have an advocate. This should be someone familiar with the requirements, curriculum and standards of learning for your child, someone you can trust to guide you to make the best decisions. Choose someone you can ask clarifying questions to before and after school meetings. True advocates will honor your beliefs and not just listen to your concerns, but take action on your behalf.

Black children have been out of school for nearly a year, and whether or not anyone wants to admit it, learning has been lost. We are working twice as hard to ensure that our children learn so they can reach their personal potential. We will overcome this moment, and so will our children. As Black parents and families, we have what it takes to make sure that our Black children are educated, liberated and given the tools they need in order to thrive.

Isis Spann is a public school educator and mother of four. She recently co-authored a book with her daughter titled “Nia’s Purpose,” to shed light on what it’s like to live with cerebral palsy as a kid in elementary school. Outside the classroom, Spann is CEO of FUNdamentals of Learning, a company focusing on narrowing equity, engagement and instructional practice gaps.

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