School just ended and many families were reminded of how toxic some public schools’ culture can be for Black students. Graduation is a tradition as well as a celebration. There are many public schools, traditional and non-traditional, that set dress codes for their graduation ceremonies. Dress codes that can become barriers for students who show up to graduation outside of the criteria.
One year a fellow Black male teacher gave his tie to a student so that he could graduate. I recently tweeted about another Black male teacher this year who gave his shoes to a student so that he could graduate.
The Washington Post published an article celebrating a Black male teacher for giving a student his shoes in order to walk across the graduation stage, but this shouldn’t be something that we have to celebrate. While bringing awareness to the good deed of the teacher, the Washington Post didn’t call for readers to question the culture of public schools that allow for such barriers to be established and implemented in the first place.
Teachers, particularly Black male teachers, are placed in the line of fire by doing common sense acts that clean up the messes created by poor school culture.
The pandemic may have uncovered inequities in virtual learning, but many students didn’t forget the culture of public schools across the nation before COVID-19 especially for Black students matriculating through public institutions of learning that haven’t declared they are anti-racist.
Across the Nation, Black students and teachers witnessed how public school districts moved slowly to implement plans to ensure they would be protected if having to return to school for in person learning. Courtney Collins captured the thoughts of Black educators and families regarding public school districts’ continued failure to protect them pre and post COVID-19. “Many educators, students, and families are wondering what rights they have to fight dangerous reopening plans.” Many others are wondering what rights Black students have to an equitable education as schools tweak distance learning plans, but rarely any have tweaked plans to address inequitable policies that create toxic school cultures for Black students.
Sydney Page, writer of The Washington Post article, does capture the essence and positive impact of teacher – student relationships. But every student isn’t fortunate like Daverius Peters to have a Black male teacher present to step in to provide help in a situation like this. Public school districts that lack innovation in school models also struggle with the recruitment and retention of male educators of color. Organizations like Profound Gentlemen are bridging the gap for public school districts in Charlotte, Chicago, and Atlanta. This is only a start to help change the culture of public schools, but we can’t stop there.
School board leaders must make it a priority to revise policies that don’t protect students and teachers.
The article doesn’t highlight how poor school cultures allow for such policies to be implemented in public schools that create additional barriers for students. Teachers risk a lot to push for changes in the culture of public schools around such policies that restrict flexibility in behavior, discipline, and attendance policies.
School boards and subsidies of school districts that impact policy can make amendments to graduation dress codes. These “codes” resemble Black codes and white only signs. Andre Perry wrote regarding Black codes that, “Our bondage continued even after the abolition of slavery in 1865: Southern states legislated “Black Codes” immediately after the Civil War, denying Black people the right to vote and restricting their movement.” This denial of movement is not evident in The Washington Post article regarding graduation codes being the final barrier to prevent the movement or matriculation of Black students successfully out of the system.
Graduation dress codes have been known to also target the hair mostly hairstyles worn by Black students. Daverius, mentioned in the Washington Post article, just happens to be a Black student from a lower income community. The article also fails to drive the question of why can’t public schools make pathways for post graduation more equitable for Black students.
This is why it is important for public schools to declare they are anti-racist institutions and do the work to show they really are. Policy makers could have spent the last 12 months reflecting on ways to improve policies in public school districts that remove barriers such as graduation codes that are punitive as opposed to restorative.
The action desired is the change in policies that govern how public schools implement behavior, discipline and attendance policies.
Jason has worked in education for over 15 years as a teacher, blogger and community advocate. He speaks and writes primarily about the need to improve education for Black boys, particularly increasing the number of Black male educators in schools. In addition to blogging here at EdLanta, Jason is also a featured writer at Education Post.