On Being Black at School

by Jess Burnquist

Image via  Pexels

Image via Pexels

Recently, I was fortunate enough to be able to interview Kelly Wickham Hurst, the founder of a new initiative, Black Kids at School, that seeks to address the proven mistreatment of students of color in schools. As a teacher, this issue strikes home and I am so glad to have been given advice and access to a program that can make an immediate difference. As Americans, this issue demands our attention. Too often, I believe, it is easy to think that news headlines apply to some abstract "other." But they don't. The impact of unfair discipline and approach to youth of color, specifically Black children, in our schools has profound consequences and it is high time we do something about it. Kelly Hurst, a former teacher, provides us with the opportunity to do just that. Read on to see how you can help:

MaxMA: I read a piece today in which you discussed your childhood and the eventual absence of color in the mostly white suburbs where you came to reside — can you speak to how that impacted your awareness of race in respect to school and community? Specifically, can you address the notion of "color blindness" and why that is such a form of erasure as well as denial of diversity?

Hurst: My awareness of race came once there was such a monochromatic look to it that I began to see what people meant by "majority" and "minority", terms which I've come to dislike as they've lost their usefulness. Upon first moving to the suburbs I remember asking my mother, "Where did all these white people come from?" because I had finally noticed the absence of all the cultures I was used to seeing in Chicago. Once I saw that, I wasn't able to unsee it and it became a focal point for me to begin to define myself. Was I mixed race? Was I Black if I was comfortable there? Would white people ever stop asking me if I had a tan?

MaxMA: On a personal level, as a teacher, I respect and am deeply intrigued by your decision to not only identify a need for restorative justice in education in the United States, but also your decision to find a new angle, outside of district employment to implement your goals for your initiative Being Black at School. Can you discuss the decision to leave your job as well as outline your goals for your program?

Hurst: When I decided to leave my role within the public school system it was because it felt like a Sisyphean task of rolling a stone up a hill. There are so many factors that work against students of color and, in my case, Black students. We would implement new positive behavior programs but the bulk of the discipline was still meted out to our Black boys. I could walk into the detention room at lunch and see it filled with Black boys. In talking with them, I learned that they owned their behavior but were incredibly frustrated that their white peers had the same behavior but weren't kicked out of class for it. It wasn't an anomaly, either. This is consistent across the United States. I would hear from teachers and other admins that we had to "do something" about those boys but it was in codified language. Those boys became my responsibility as a Black administrator and one day I gathered all of the 8th grade Black boys in a room to talk about it.

That was a powerful moment for me and for them because they hadn't felt listened to about the unfair and excessive discipline they were receiving. Mostly, I wanted to validate them and show them the national data by the Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males. What's heartbreaking is that they thought it was just them and just our school and were relieved to see the struggle was national. Isn't that terribly sad? That they needed to look outside our bubble and recognize this is a school system issue? That's a part of what helped make my decision. We needed to do something on a grander scale to get schools to recognize this and stop hurting children and, ultimately, that is what we do when we ignore the implicit bias and racially unfair practices we bring into classrooms.

The goals of Being Black at School are to look at policy, listen to the narratives of educators and students who see this inequality, and then put into place some plans for change. Schools have all kinds of committees to look at assessment, student relationships, behavior programs, and academic balance, but when it comes to the research and discipline we tend to admire the problem and collect data but never work on the social emotional health that gets at the root of the problem. Restorative justice isn't difficult and requires adults to consider how we're handling students who might not comply quickly enough or who have other issues behind the behavior.

Read more: Concrete Ways to be an Actual Ally to Black People

MaxMA: In your opinion what will the costs be if schools and communities fail to acknowledge the stark disparities in treatment, discipline, and opportunities for students of color? 

Hurst: The cost of failing to acknowledge the stark disparities in treatment are, sadly, only going to further the access gap that marginalize students of color. They are the ones already hurting and will continue to do so which means the onus is on conscious adults who want to see all students prosper. It also means that public schools, who are so often accused of being "failing", have to deal with anti-racism head on if we want to get anywhere. I know this sounds drastic, but it's already there. We're failing students of color on a breathtaking scale and placing the blame on arbitrary things like *parental involvement or lack of preparedness for class when really it's about our relationships with students and closely watching the bias we bring into the classrooms that make a marked difference for them.

MaxMA: Where can our readers go to learn more about Being Black at School?

Hurst: Anyone who wants to be involved with this initiative can visit Being Black at School and use the resources we're curating/creating for schools. Right now, we're working on funding to make our curriculum widely available which includes training kits for educators. 

*Parental involvement is important, but this is often the dog-whistle for educators who like to say this when EVERY parent is involved but to different degrees. If I never show up to school and never join the PTO as a parent but I expect my child to do well and make them a place to study at night then I'm an involved parent


Jess Burnquist teaches high school English and Creative Writing in Arizona. Because she has a teenage son and daughter, she is literally surrounded by adolescents 24/7. Sit with that for a minute. Her writings and teaching blog can be found at www.jessburnquist.com.