Wilkins: Charter school leaders of color engage families to bolster student success. Some practices that all school leaders can adopt
Amy Wilkins | November 20, 2019
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A child’s educational foundation begins at home — no matter what that house may look like. Socioeconomic class and racial identity do not determine how committed parents are to their child’s success, because families and dedicated school leaders come in all colors and tax brackets. But let’s be real: Being white and wealthy does open doors for engagement of students’ families that have been traditionally closed for too many who look like me. Today, this engagement gap is an increasingly heavy burden on the shoulders of students and families of color.
Thankfully, there is a growing number of innovative and committed school leaders of color in public charter schools who are fighting to close that gap. This week, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released a report, “Identity and Charter School Leadership: Profiles of Leaders of Color Engaging Families,” that highlights the thoughtful and effective practices of these inspiring leaders that others — regardless of their race or ethnicity — would be wise to adopt.
In addition to engaged families at home, we know from experience that great students most often have great teachers, regardless of the type of public school where they serve, be it charter or traditional. But not all environments champion school leaders, particularly those of color, equally. As the report reveals, charter schools are at the forefront of fostering leadership pathways for educators because they have “considerable flexibility to act in different and innovative ways to support students.” Imagine if we harnessed the power of both engaged families and our best teachers and poured it into our kids’ futures by way of their classrooms?
What we don’t have to imagine are the irreparable consequences of robbing students and families of their choice of public schools. Every day, we see increasing attempts to undermine students’ success because a few misguided politicians (current and aspiring), teachers unions and special interests see charter schools as an easy target. But schools don’t have futures; the kids who attend them do. The real victims of these attacks are the millions of students of all colors who would choose a charter school if one were available to them.
We should all be in constant search for practices and policies that produce results — and shout them from the rooftops for all to hear and benefit from. I’ll start with an example that inspired me.
Maquita Alexander, profiled in our report, is like many parents of color who are in laser-focused partnerships with teachers to accept nothing less success for their children. Alexander saw how her children thrived at Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., where she was an active and engaged parent. But she wanted to ensure that other children were given the same space and tools to thrive that she’d helped make possible for her own. Today, Alexander is the executive director and head of school at the same public charter where she first walked through the door as a parent. Her dual perspectives and experiences illustrate the finding in our report that when students’ families are engaged by innovative leaders of color in public charter schools, the children are more likely to thrive despite challenges and circumstances that follow them to the classroom.
We are nowhere near leveling the playing field for black and brown students, and the solution isn’t as simple as following the mantra that students of color do best with school leaders who look like them (though years of research and our own report find that this is very often the case.) School leaders of color must go a step further and see the likeness they share with their students as a value, not a deficit — an indicator of success shared by the three leaders of color profiled in our report, as well as so many like them across the country, from your neighborhood to mine.
Amy Wilkins is senior vice president of advocacy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools in Washington D.C., and a Pahara-Aspen Institute Education fellow. In 2013, she was named senior fellow for social justice at The College Board, where she led efforts to increase Advanced Placement enrollment among high-achieving African-American students and addressed the achievement and attainment gaps separating middle-class African-American students from their white peers.