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My Son Is Attending A ‘Blue Ribbon’ School — And I’m Terrified

My black son is going to an ultra-competitive, nearly all-white school where “the teachers are hammers and the students are the nails.”

“That school is brutal. The teachers are hammers and the students are the nails.” That’s what one parent told me when I asked how his son liked his middle school — the same school my son would be starting the following day. Instead of feeling better, or at least not worse, about moving my son from his tight-knit, predominately black and Latinx charter school in South Central Los Angeles to the massive (to me), 700-student, “blue ribbon” (i.e., “recognized by the Department of Education for achieving superior standards of academic excellence”) behemoth down the street where only 4% of the students are black, I was shook.

Middle school is hard enough, even under the best of circumstances. The transition from the welcoming, relatively safe elementary school environment to a chaotic, faster-paced secondary institution can be jarring. Switching classes and figuring out how to impress six different teachers with six different sets of expectations while still making it to class on time can feel impossible to some children. But when you add to that a whole new set of kids who bring a whole new set of social codes, inside jokes and, sadly, bullies, with them? Middle school can be pretty damn stressful.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Middle school is hard enough, even under the best of circumstances.[/quote]

It’s no wonder a lot of kids go into a slump or, as the American Psychological Association calls it, a “middle school malaise” that can result in lower grades and less confidence during their first year. And we haven’t even mentioned hormones yet.

Like most kids, my son’s body is changing and he doesn’t want to talk to his mom about it. But middle school can bring with it conversations (and misconceptions) about sex that 11-year-olds just aren’t really equipped to have. And some — as I learned when I taught seventh and eighth grade a few years ago — are even having it and dealing with negative consequences like pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. So it’s no wonder that my anxiety was already at a 10 with the thought of my baby, ahem, tween, starting this new phase of his life, and my conversation with a fellow soccer parent didn’t help — at all.

Instead, it sent me spiraling into a wave of fear and doubt and worry that I’d made the wrong choice. Sure, the school is great on paper with an award-winning band, packed PTSA meetings, and distinguished status from the State of California for excelling academically. But with zero black teachers (or staff members) and only a smattering of black students, how good of an experience could it really be for my son?

Though they are rare at schools like my son’s (or in America, for that matter), black teachers matter, especially for black boys. According to a study from the IZA Institute of Labor Economics, “A black teacher in primary school cuts high school dropout rates 39 percent. It also raises college aspirations along with the probability of taking a college entrance exam.” Last year, my son really blossomed with his teacher Ms. Jackson, who was not only amazingly patient and encouraging to all of her students, but she was able to relate to them as well. They did projects on black and Latinx historical figures, practiced math to rap beats, and she was fluent in the slang they spoke, resulting in more relatable and culturally relevant lessons.

This year will undoubtedly be different.

As someone who thinks and writes a lot about race in America, I already know what he’s up against. Despite most people’s best intentions, implicit bias is real AF and colors the way we see the world and relate to one another. Teachers are no exception. Research has shown that, in general, educators have lower expectations of children of color, which can affect their educational outcomes. Couple that with the fact that black students are four times more likely to get suspended than their white peers even though they commit the same sorts of disciplinary infractions, and I’m already steeling myself to be a fierce advocate for my son.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Sure, the school is great on paper. ... But with zero black teachers (or staff members) and only a smattering of black students, how good of an experience could it really be for my son?[/quote]

Of course, he may have a perfectly wonderful time in middle school, easily making friends and dazzling his teachers with his vast vocabulary, charm, and obsession with dinosaurs. After all, his elementary school teachers had nothing but praise about my son’s work ethic and behavior, and he finished the fifth grade with four As and a B. So, I’m still holding onto hope that my son will sidestep all the potential landmines to make it through these next three years with ease.

After triggering all my uneasiness about the new school, my fellow soccer dad left me with this gem: “Just remember this: It’s not your son. It’s the school.” Sadly, for black students like my son, it’s far more complicated than that.

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