Back to School Nashville: Parents Got 99 Problems…The Type of School Ain’t One

Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 6.05.17 AMGuest Blogger Shani Jackson Dowell shares her thoughts about a world where parents are doing the best for their children while navigating systemic isms and the age-old battle against others’ judgment. 

I hear ya, sis.

Parents, you know we’ve got all kinds of problems to worry about. But feeling judged for the kind of school we choose for our children shouldn’t be one of them.

Just last week I had an issue that sucked up my time and attention for the better part of the week.

It was the third day that week my eldest child claimed sickness so she didn’t have to go to her summer program. She is a talented actress, I should say—so good that I was doubting myself. Maybe she actually was sick? Maybe I should keep her home?

The program she is in seems like it should be perfect — academically stellar, beautiful setting. But for some reason that week she had been struggling and claiming to be sick for much of it.

By day 3 of this parenting fiasco I was enlisting help — asking the person I was meeting with at 10 am for his wisdom on the subject as the father of three. Should I make her go to school? How should we handle this?

And as a parent I was stressed. Is something wrong? Is it social? Is it a teacher? Is it the content? The truth is, it was probably a little bit of all of it to some degree. As we dug into it was a little bit of everything. And eventually, she got passed it.

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No Time For Judgment

The more I talk to other parents about the issues they’re dealing with and the more I read stuff about school choice all over the news, the more I realize that nobody’s got time for the added stress of feeling judged for the kind of school we choose for our kids.

As parents, we have somehow created a space where we have forced each other to feel guilty about our school choices. Parents who send their kid to their zoned district school are judged. Parents who send their kid to a charter school are judged. Parents who send their kid to a private school are judged. Parents who send their kid to a magnet school are judged. Parents who homeschool their kid are judged.

We have to change this. I have had the disheartening experience of talking to multiple parents who told me when they were looking for schools, “I really thought this option would be the best for my kid — but we just don’t want to be known for sending our kid to a [insert type] school.”

“We Don’t Have Many of Those Here”

And I just think about if my parents had heard a chorus of judgment weighing on their minds when they were considering the best school options for me. When we moved to Houston they called around for the best public elementary schools. The one that we ended up going to was going to be a 90 minute bus ride each way from our house — and when my mom called the school to find out what the experience would be like for a Black child there, the coordinator of the program I was entering misunderstood the question and replied, “you don’t have to worry about that. We don’t have many of those here.”


My parents had enough stress trying to determine which would be the least damaging option to their kids — an academically weak school (that could also have been not welcoming to a Black child) or an academically strong school (that likely would not be welcoming to a Black child). To then layer on some kind of social stigma to their decision making would create unneeded pressure. Yet this is what we do to parents all the time — perhaps most to those with the least options.

A Little Grace, Please

The jobs of parenting and schooling are hard enough. Let’s give each other grace on the school type judgment. It reminds me sometimes of the shaming that can happen around feeding your child in the first year (breastfeeding or formula) or parents who choose to stay at home full time with their kids or work full time.

Let’s just assume that everyone is doing the best they can for themselves and their families.

And leave the rest of the time to stress about figuring out if our kids are actually sick or not.

Shani Jackson Dowell, an alumna of Howard University and Stanford University, currently works for Relay Graduate School of Education.

“They Planning For Our Future, None Of Our People Involved” – A Reminder From A Tribe Called Quest

Education advocacy–and I’m talking mainly about the debate on charter schools, vouchers, and tracking school progress (aka accountability)–deserves your attention. It doesn’t matter what you’ve heard or what you think you know, sit back and take a look at what’s happening nationally and in your own backyard. Too many people get their information from one side of the debate or the other. I am not without bias, but will try to lay out the facts.  

Education reform (known as ed reform) is a movement led by a small group of people focused on creating non-traditional educational options in high needs school districts. Too often, the people who are affected the most aren’t even in the room as decisions are being made.  

Charter schools are non-traditional public schools. Non-traditional in the sense that these schools have their own board and oftentimes have programs that are available in traditional schools.  

Vouchers are actual checks that follow students to a private school of choice. This concept is virtually new to Tennessee and is currently offered to students with special needs.

And we track school progress by looking at things like student test scores, graduation rates, and how much students are growing academically. For the purposes of this post, I will focus on charters and vouchers as these offsprings of choice create a lot of noise in Nashville and throughout the country.

The Fight Around Us

imgresThere is a ferocious education battle in every major city in America and I have expended a lot of space to the Battle at School Choice between the anti-charter crowd and ed reformers in Nashville. As best I can tell, the core of the fight (as seen on Twitter) is money. Those against charters are opposed to money leaving traditional public schools to go to schools that are both publicly and privately funded.

Meanwhile, ed reformers seek out opportunities to launch a school, generally in urban districts with failing schools. As in Nashville’s case, these reformers mostly come from other places and set up shop, using resources (time, people, money) to deploy marketing tactics (digital and door-to-door campaigns) to recruit families.

What’s most interesting about the debate is the demographics of the debaters in comparison to the demographics of the intended targets. Most of the anti-charter traffic (again, on Twitter) come from white, middle/upper class, and well-educated women and men with children in public schools. Nashville ed reformers are generally white, well-educated out-of-towners. The group for which they are fighting are children and families of color and in poverty.

Dr. Chris Emdin, associate professor at the Teachers College at Columbia University and author of For White Folks Who Teach In The Hood and The Rest of Y’all, Too, recently gave a SXSW (South by Southwest) talk. In it, Dr. Emdin imparts 50 minutes of superfood for the soul using A Tribe Called Quest’s latest project as his framework. Sharing their take on the politics of the day in the track The Space Program, Tribe says “they planning for our future, none of our people involved.” Truth.

The whole education battle is paternalistic, indeed. I’m sure most are well-meaning, but too often the debate blurs into a toxic combination of ideology and self-interest. Other times it’s a simple battle of wit – who can bitch the best in 140 characters or less. Meanwhile, there are children waiting in the margins whose outcome is dependent upon a great education.

The paternalism and borderline hypocrisy smacked me in the face just last week while sitting in a hearing room at the Tennessee legislature waiting to hear the fate of a voucher bill in the House Education Committee. Sitting amongst a group of Shelby County parents, teachers, and students adorned in blue shirts and anti-voucher stickers, I had a chance to speak with a couple of the protestors before the session.

The first person I spoke with was a white mother from Germantown, TN, a swank suburb of Memphis, who has a child enrolled at the performing arts school there. The second person I spoke with was a black mom, who is a teacher and union board member. Both women were seriously opposed to vouchers forcing me to assess the situation from a different lens.

Here were two educated middle class women (three including me), with the wherewithal to navigate the system to benefit their own children, yet speaking fervently against an option that could possibly help our most vulnerable population. Yeah, “they planning for our future, none of our people involved.”

Paternalism and the Belief Gap

af773c1312b5de1f490c188afc53e956I think about my own family members raising grandchildren amongst the most dire of circumstances and I see the challenges. Witnessing mothers and grandmothers masterfully juggling work and family with few resources. So I get that adding just one more thing that isn’t food, clothing, or shelter is too much. Still, we must believe that parents in difficult situations want the best for their child and it’s the duty of those with resources to get the information to them so they may make their own decisions.

We must believe in them to combat influential naysayers like Tennessee lawmaker Rep. John DeBerry, a black legislator representing Memphis who believes  “We’ve got people who can care less whether or not their child is educated, just as long as their child is out of the house so they can go back to bed.” 

The representative’s clumsy attempt at respectability politics perpetuates paternalism and the idea that parents living in a certain income bracket and parents of color are unconcerned about their children’s educations. Additionally, and tragically, this harmful thinking by state leaders trickles down to district and school levels widening the belief gap: the space between what students can achieve and what others believe they can achieve. (h/t Education Post)

There’s enough blame to go around, but that doesn’t help children in need of high quality education answers today. What is helpful is to actually take a trip into the lives of those for whom we are fighting. Go to the parents and grandparents whose education decisions have been made for them by where they live and through the advocacy and opposition of decisions made on their behalf.

As Charlie Friedman, Nashville Classical charter school leader recently stated, “you actually have to go ask the parents what they think.” Yeah, that’s something even A Tribe Called Quest could appreciate. 


Cincy Bound, For the Babies

150 perfect strangers bound together by the love for America’s children, our future. Because for our children we permit ourselves to dream the best dreams for our country.

Our visions are magnificent! And though we may have missed the mark, we revel in the beauty of transferring the dream to the next generation. For a dream deferred is not dead.

We are good knowing that today’s sacrifices make for tomorrow’s proud returns. 

We will rest well on the understanding that we fought the good fight and left it all on the battlefield. 

Our children deserve every ounce of fight and worry and love and attention and debate that we have at our disposal. 

Parents: I fought (and fight, still) for my children. I stand with you in the fight for yours. Understand your power and use it wisely. 

NAACP:  if not for the babies, then who?