Developing Innovative Education for Students of Color

Our children are in trouble. Sixty-five years after the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision with its promise of educational equity for Black and Brown children, they are still poorly educated in low performing and underfunded K-12 public schools.

Legal challenges for economic equity and institutional changes continue in states across the country, as does the push for education reform from various factions including the nation’s business sector. But let’s call education reform what it is: a series of mandates coming from people outside our communities intended to remake America’s troubled education system so that it serves their needs and furthers their interests.

It’s time to further our interests and support transformative educators who see opportunity where others see obstacles. It is not the opportunity to create a compliant workforce that grants those in power continued dominance and economic hegemony. Instead, this is an opportunity to unleash the brilliance coded in our children’s DNA; the brilliance that craves our guidance and that languishes in so many classrooms throughout this country.

The traditional model of schooling where children sit passively in classrooms while teachers lecture is not working. Ignoring children’s need for social-emotional learning and development is not only not working, but creates unsafe classroom environments where more students are violently acting out. If we want our children to become actively engaged learners, we must offer up transformative models of teaching and learning that are experiential, intergenerational, and socially and politically relevant to their lives and experiences. We also have to cultivate safe, sacred spaces which give children the emotional and psychological freedom to make mistakes and grow from those mistakes.

Imagine a school where students are taught how to deal with strong emotions, and where they’re measured on how well they treat themselves and those in their school and home communities. Imagine metrics that celebrate children’s ability to persevere despite challenges, practice peacefulness, adopt a growth mindset, develop a healthy sense of themselves, and become experts at solving problems. Imagine.

Then imagine sending your child to a neighborhood school where you feel welcomed and appreciated by teachers willing to partner with you to nurture, love, and educate your daughter; a school where your son’s culture and worldview is understood and honored, and instead of being thought of as lacking, valued for its strengths.

Imagine a school where your children commune with elders in their residential care homes, twice monthly, as part of their academic and social-emotional curriculum; a school that cultivates mutually beneficial partnerships with individuals and organizations throughout the school community. Middle Passage School for Life, working to open in August 2020 in Harlem, New York, is that school. At Middle Passage, we understand — and require all our stakeholders to understand — the historical roots of trauma in Black and Brown communities. Our administrators and teachers recognize that many students suffer from the adverse effects of trauma brought on by painful childhood experiences. Instead of employing punitive methods of discipline that shame and further traumatize struggling students, we engage in restorative practices that promote student and family healing, growth, and accountability.

Our goal is to grow and nurture critical thinkers, innovators, and problem solvers poised to assume their roles as 21st century leaders and entrepreneurs — principled leaders who’ll leave the world they’ve inherited better for their children and their children’s children. We’ll accomplish this through project-based collaborative studies where students are tasked to come up with solutions to real-world problems plaguing their communities — foundational studies like Dying for Some Sneakers where students explore the economics of the $1 billion resale sneaker industry as well as the psycho-social impact of consumerism in oppressed, marginalized communities. They’ll also master percents, ratios, algebra, they will learn to read charts and graphs, begin to explore chemistry as they uncover the science behind the production of the sneakers they wear, and study the history and culture of Southeast Asia where the majority of sneakers and sportswear is manufactured.

Similarly, the I Can’t Breathe! semester-long exploration is an integrated study of math, science, English Language Arts, and social studies that examine the epidemiological impacts of environmental racism and structural inequality in students’ neighborhoods. Essential questions including, “Who can be free,” “Where do I come from,” and “Is our environment friendly” constantly challenge students to think about themselves and their place in the world they inhabit. Because our approach to teaching and learning is family- and community-based at the end of a unit of study, we’ll invite parents, caregivers, and community members into our classrooms to break bread with us and bear witness to their children’s mastery of the material they’ve uncovered.

Our children are crying out for our help. They’re begging for their schools, and for teaching and learning to be different.

Our answer has to be to help them learn to value themselves and everyone in their school community so that never again will a mother have to bury her 10-year-old daughter who died after a classroom fight with another 10-year-old. Our answer has to be to build schools where teachers and staff value students’ social-emotional growth and development as much as they value their academic and intellectual development.

We have to assume the roles of leaders and visionaries in our own independent schools who are clear that education is not “the way out” of a bad neighborhood or bad circumstance but rather, the way in — the way into creating vibrant, sustainable, loving communities.

The legacy we leave our children can’t be that we worked to ensure some could escape our communities and get a good education. Our legacy has to be that we worked within our communities to create and support world-class educational networks for all our children. These include Saturday schools as well as independent schools like Middle Passage School for Life where we’re working to create a safe, loving, collaborative school environment where children soar.


About the Author

Teresa Ann Willis is an author, restorative practices trainer, and transformative educator. Together with a group of committed parents and teachers, she is giving birth to Middle Passage School for Life, a private school serving a public mission slated to open in August 2020. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, Like A Tree Without Roots (Ase Publishing, 2013) chronicles the lives of urban teenagers and their struggles to overcome internalized racial inferiority, colorism and the specter of police brutality.