With administrators concerned about test scores and behavior problems, and parents concerned about lack of involvement by the district’s mostly white teaching staff, the first Columbia Heights Public Schools African Heritage Family Meeting brought out a respectable turnout Friday, May 30 in the evening.
Many North Minneapolis students attend Columbia Heights Public Schools. Ann Dillard’s many family and professional connections to the Northside came in handy as she recruited local Rotary Club members to act as table moderators.
And while table talk time was short, those involved did come up with points to be solved, or solutions, each table tackling one of 14 different questions. In looking at those points, we challenge NorthNews readers to contemplate how they can apply the discussion to all young people coming up through any public school system, and participate in solving the stark reality that, unlike Garrison Keillor’s tongue-in-cheek claim that in Minnesota "every child is above average," locally, too many black, brown and white students are testing below grade level proficiency.
Between resident families and students from North and Northeast Minneapolis attending Columbia Heights’ schools through open enrollment, students of color are the majority, with African American and Somali students comprising 38 percent of the schools’ population. (White are 28 percent, Hispanic 26 percent, Asian/Pacific Islander 5 percent, Native American 3 percent.)
Black students have lower test scores, and lower numbers of students proficient in basic subjects at grade level. And they have disproportionate numbers of suspensions and discipline problems.
Dillard, the K-12 Family Involvement Specialist, wrapped up the meeting with the idea that it will be a parent solution to a nationwide problem, that if "each one [would] bring one" the numbers involved will climb. Afterward, a parent shared that this turnout of maybe 50 parents is exponentially better than the six or so people who had been meeting for the last five months on the topic.
An impassioned parent accused the district of "soft words spoken" about disappointing test scores and how "we’re trying." But, "didn’t y’all have these same numbers for years in a row...What did you do last year to help my babies this year?" She said "we’re doing our part as parents, we’re getting them here. Where are the teachers? How can they hear our voices if they’re not here?" Dillard has clarified that while they were not disinvited from the May 30 meeting, teachers were not specifically asked to come. A couple did.
One of the Champion Parents confirmed to this newspaper that the "T" is missing from PTA (Parent Teacher Association) meetings. Champion Parents are a group who have made special commitments to their children and school.
Ann Dillard is right. Parents know or should know their children best, and are best equipped to re-create the "village" that it takes to raise a child. They can use the additional eyes and ears that the teachers and administrators provide, and translate the necessary life lessons to their children. The village has in many neighborhoods gone indoors and disconnected for reasons of fear, or for reasons of parents just having to make a living to support the babies. It is still a parental responsibility, in which the schools are a partner.
Parents talked about improving summer experiences for students so that they will continue to learn, by better communication about using the library, Little Libraries, or the bookmobiles they used to have. Other suggestions were: Bridge the grade levels, have clear what the expectations will be in the next grade and have a summer plan for improvement. Increase the partnership with parks and rec, kids should play outside and have fun, and learn something as they’re playing.
Several questions resulted in answers about getting parents and other role models involved by personally asking them, or contacting them so that they know how their students are doing. There were ideas for types of volunteering.
"What can the district do to improve your child’s academic experience?" Have high expectations for all students. Given that most teachers are white, they should take opportunities to learn culturally relevant conventions, and not just attend, but implement what they learn so that students don’t feel polarized or inferior.
Several questions resulted in answers about being culturally aware.
To a question "what are key things that teachers and staff need to understand about your culture?" keep in mind that "African Heritage" in Columbia Heights, and elsewhere to different degrees, encompasses both African-American (whether or not descended from slaves) and Somali. A table moderator who translated for Somali reported: "Our society is hierarchical. Authority is highly valued. There are incentives to silence. Looking directly in the eyes is [not good]."
"Faith is important. Allah – God – is in every corner of our lives. Teachers are in the role of parents, we want to trust you to take our place when children are in school. We came to this country for peace. We came to this country for education. We value peace, we value education. Our children are our asset, we want the district to see them as our future, not to judge them on faults that we don’t see as faults."
Ahmed Nur, another of the Champion Parents, explained later that seeing children as "our asset" really means that, the asset into which a lot is invested; "we all hope for our children to do better than we did." That they will be able to (financially and otherwise) take care of us in our old age.
Sound familiar? That is why this is important to all.
Originally published in the June 25, 2014 NorthNews