Last night was a wonderful experience! I attended the first African American Parent Advisory Council meeting of the 2015-2016 school year, and boy was it a blast. It is so meaningful for me to be able to see and meet other Black parents who are committed to not only ensuring the best for our families kids but for ALL Black kids in the district.

That said, I do not always feel this type of community when I’m in parent groups. Whenever I bring up the impact of race on students’ access to educational opportunity in “White” spaces I invariably get push-back from a few (or more) folks who claim I am “guilt tripping” parents or “shutting down conversations” by openly naming the fact that there are big differences in how Black, Latino or poor students or parents experience our schools. At the end of the day, White kids have teachers, movies, stories and toys that reaffirm their value in the dominant culture. That isn’t often true for Non-White or poor students. It’s important to acknowledge this.

We Need to Talk About It

Whether we like it or not, it’s not just about WHO we are inside, how we look is a factor in how we get treated by others. It’s important we recognize what is the same and WHAT IS DIFFERENT about our experience  as White, Black, Mixed, Asian etc. people so we can ensure the focus of our conversations about race moves beyond limiting white discomfort or acknowledging white guilt.

We all know what it is like to feel like we are a welcome and visible part of a school community. And we have all experienced the discomfort of feeling isolated, invisible or alone. It’s important to acknowledge that in urban public schools we often experience this in different ways and to different degrees, based on our race. There is no way to mitigate these impacts unless we can name the differences in nuanced ways.

So, how can we use the knowledge gained from dialogues we have with one another about race in our schools to ensure kids and families from ALL backgrounds feel their culture is valued and visible in all our schools?

Specifically, we can start by asking questions in our school communities:

  • Which cultural/ethnic groups are underrepresented?
  • Do Black/Latino/Asian families feel welcome by staff and parent leaders at your child’s school?
  • Do Non-English speaking students and families feel like they have a voice?
  • For schools with predominantly Asian, Latino, Black, or White students, what are you doing to help underrepresented students feel their culture and values are represented?

To that end, I have put together a handout for families to help them identify and analyze the ways their schools may make Black students and families feel welcome or push them away. I wrote this handout with my specific experience in mind as a Black parent and educator. I did so because I believe there are some crucial differences in the ways Black families and students are treated in our school system that go beyond creating welcoming school cultures for ethnically and racially generic groups.

It’s different being a Black student. Just as being an English-Learner or a poor, or a LGTB identified student or parent brings its own unique challenges. Ultimately I hope to add to this list (with the help of other families who represent these groups.)

(Black) Family Friendly Questions

10 questions to ask at your child’s school:

1. Is there an African-American Parent Advisory Council (AAPAC) or other Black family group at your school?

You don’t need a large number of Black families at your school to form an African-American Parent Advisory Council (AAPAC)—it only takes two to three members to start one. In fact, in schools with a small percentage of Black students it is even more important for families to band together to ensure school policies create a welcoming and inclusive environment for all students.

2. SFUSD has a district African American Parent Advisory Council. Is your school represented?

Whether you have an official school AAPAC or not, it is important for each school to send a few representatives to district AAPAC meetings to share concerns, questions and ideas and bring back helpful information for families. SFUSD AAPAC meetings are held on the third Thursday of each month from 5:30-8:00pm. Talk to the principal for more information.

3. Are Black families represented in parent & student leadership and other decision-making groups?

How diverse are parent and student groups at your site? Are Black families encouraged to participate? Are Black families represented on the: School Site Council (SSC), English Language Learner Advisory Committee (ELAC), Parent Teacher Association (PTA) or Parent Teacher Organization (PTO), Student Council?

4. Is Black culture valued & visible?

Is Black culture visible in instruction and school-wide celebrations throughout the year—not just during African-American History Month? Are black authors and characters included in library shelves? Is Black culture visible in field trips, school events, and performances? Are Black faces evident on classroom and hallway walls? Do all students regularly learn about Black contributions in science, mathematics, literature and the arts? Are they represented in flyers, on the website and in other school promotional materials? Are there Black teachers, classroom aides and other staff members?

5. Are Black children represented equitably in enrichment programs?

Black students make up 9% of SFUSD’s overall population. Are Black families encouraged to apply and enroll in your school? Are they equitably represented in Gifted and Talented Education students (GATE), Advanced Placement (AP), Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA), student clubs and other enrichment programs? What about after-school programming?

6. Is the school a safe space for learning?

Is your child’s classroom safe (both physically and emotionally) for all children? What about before/after school, during recess, passing periods and free time? Does the school manage discipline in fair, transparent and equitable ways?

7. Do teachers clearly explain what your child is learning?

California Education Code states you have a right to understand what your child is learning. Are your child’s teachers responsible when you ask questions about what is being taught? Do you understand teacher learning expectations and classroom management strategies? Do you know how teachers evaluate your child’s learning?

8. Do your child’s teachers welcome your involvement?

How welcome do you feel when visiting your child’s classroom? Do you feel invited to participate as a volunteer? You have a right to be involved in your child’s learning. California Education Code states families have the right to observe their child’s classroom and SFUSD Family Engagement Standards encourage schools to welcome families involvement. Many teachers encourage families to drop by if they have questions. To ensure your child’s teacher is prepared, it is important to inform him or her at least one day ahead before you plan to visit.

9. Is your child’s principal receptive and responsive?

Do you feel comfortable sharing feedback with the principal? Your child’s teachers are the best folks to talk to about classroom issues. Nonetheless, you can also talk to the principal and other staff to share ideas or ask questions. Your experience is important as it may echo the experience of other families at the school. Principals should encourage families to speak up!

10. Do you feel encouraged to share both positive and negative feedback?

Do school staff, students and parents actively welcome your ideas, questions and observations? Or do you feel like your contributions are dismissed as those of an “angry” parent? Schools should ensure all families feel their contributions are welcomed.

Try it Out, Make it Yours

Please take these questions back to your School Site Councils, Parent Teacher Organizations and other parent communities in the hopes that we can raise each others awareness of the ways we can make Black families and students feel valued and visible in our schools. I recognize that some of my readers may also reside in districts OUTSIDE of San Francisco. Feel free to customize these questions, copy it, rework it to fit your educational context. And, if you see ways to improve upon this tool, or to adapt it to other underrepresented populations please share your ideas in the comments below.

Does any of this make sense for you? Share your thoughts below!

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  1. We attend a majority Asian school, where the Chinese culture is THE culture du jour. There are a few African American children, a few other Asian cultures represented, and a handful of White children. It is interesting to watch the cliques form. They are generally gender based cliques. Color and ethnicity seem not to be the differentiating factor here. I am always fascinated by the racial diversity in San Francisco and how this plays out in the behavior of children.

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About alimcollins

Ali Collins is an educator, community organizer and mom. She lives with her husband and twin girls in San Francisco, CA.

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Social Justice Parenting

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