Strategies to Enhance Students’ Engagement with Academic Success

Considering race as a strength and a fault line for Black Americans, Gary Orfield (2014) distinguished scholar and long-term head of the Civil Rights Project now at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), proposed a new civil rights policy wherein “race-conscious policies are essential to move toward genuinely equal opportunity” (p. 283). He argues, and we agree, that only with this approach can effects of past and contemporary racial discrimination be countered and excellent and equitable education be advanced. Lewis and Diamond (2015), and we agree, take this one step further, stipulating that racial consciousness needs to guide daily interactions, procedures and how they are carried out—at all times, the awareness of racial history must be taken into account in forming new approaches.

At the deepest level, this connects with the central driver of successful engagement and negotiation with schools, what we call familism: the connection between the Black collective history of struggle and achievements and educational engagement. The implications for content in the schools and through library programs have long been supported. Multicultural pedagogy with a pro-Black race-consciousness is proven helpful in curriculum development. Implications for the administration to change the culture of the school have had intermittent partial support.

To recognize and legitimate families as holders of Black cultural wealth and agency based on the strength of cultural resources is a strategy that would directly disrupt the normalization of failure so ingrained in school traditions and teaching of Black students. We have alluded to it at the beginning of the book, a failure-is-normal construct that is the basis of the intentional perpetuation of Black underachievement and caste status. For example, teachers seem to hold on to a disconnect that has them profess love for all students (see any number of public school mission statements), but also discourage Black students from taking advanced classes where the White kids are (see the many stories on low expectations in chapter 7). We propose providing a large variety of points of access and opportunities and channels of communication to incorporate Black community wealth into the functioning and structures of the institution, the pedagogy, as well as the interactions with school personnel.

The school can legitimize Black family and community cultural capital at the structural level: In empowering community based cultural brokers to invite with care and authenticity parents to act as key resources for school reform efforts. Critical cultural brokering may foster and sustain collaboration with existing community organizations and informal self-organized groups of parents, all of which enhances family engagement, community empowerment and counters the White normative

Toward Equity in Educational Opportunity V75 assumptions about parent involvement (Ishimaru, Torres, Salvador, Lott, II, Cameron Williams, Tran, 2016). In the areas of teaching practices, learning support, counselling for families in crisis, guidance counselling, and cocurricular activities, it is imperative to remove the “White gaze” or the accepted dominant White norms of behavior (see chapter 5 in particular). The criteria and structures for ability tracking need to be entirely rethought to provide equity of opportunity. Standardized test scores should play a minor part if any in the determinations.

We present two illustrations of how community based cultural brokers have empowered parent engagement in school reform efforts and activated a shift toward more equitable school community collaboration.

Mrs. Tonya King, Shaker Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) president in the late 2010s used a bottom-up approach:

In the Shaker District, during the PTO nomination period, it was always a scramble to find individuals to fill committee and chair positions. Most of the nominations and referrals came from the people who were already serving in some capacity in the PTO. Over time, this became a problem because the same people were being nominated year after year, and rarely were there any fresh faces, especially on the executive boards. This led to the problem of a racially biased homogenous roster that was not a good representation of the diversity in our District.

She continued,

In 2017, a small group of us active Black parents and PTO members met at a location out of the district to discuss how we could bring more diversity to the PTO so that issues of concern to minorities could be addressed and supported. We tasked ourselves with thinking outside of the box to name other Black parents that held leadership and professional roles in our community but had not been involved with the PTO. The next day we called all the people on the list to ask if they would consider holding a position on the PTO. From this list of names, many new individuals and perspectives were added to the roster for years now. Each year now, the PTO nomination committee has a bigger pool of names, including more Black parents to nominate to volunteer positions. Diversifying the PTO still needs work, but it has improved greatly.

Mr. Martin, Peggy and Aaron’s dad, enacted more traditional activism. After he noticed that his son was not being treated fairly, he went to observe in the schools. “Even before middle school, some teachers just had a mindset about Black males.” As “just” a parent and community member he did not feel he had a platform to seek remedies. “We had this feeling that Shaker was ruled by a dozen moms, and they were all White.... That is why I ran for the school board in 1992.” Mr. Martin served for a number of years and others from the Black community followed suit. The board has become more diverse in representation over the last decade.

Students have used cultural brokering strategies to encourage and support peer-to-peer bonding and formed organizations that engender great engagement with academics. The Minority Achievement Council and the Student Group on Race Relations for several decades have sustained student engagement and raised achievement.

Newcomers to the District and community typically go through a difficult period of acculturation. Proactive counselling by a cultural broker employed by the District has shown to be highly effective in the Lomond elementary school community. Approaching newcomer families with the understanding that they have a greater investment and very strong motivation to achieve, can assist in these students and families adopting the “Black and educated” dual racial realistic viewpoint. Recognizing the Black cultural wealth that these families bring can help redress the historic mistrust left by a legacy of White oppression.

Shaker Black community-based activist organizations with high aspirations for their children have for the past forty years or more organized to bring forward actionable strategies to provide quality education to all Black students and not only the 20% high achievers. The challenges of racial discord, mustrust and continued discrimination in the school system seem to get lost in the noise generated by a post-affirmative action ideology that higher socio-economic status of middle-class Black Americans or the election of a Black president has eliminated racism and that therefore, it is the Black students’ fault if they don’t achieve highly. For example, Cleveland’s NPR radio station aired another de-contextualized report on Shaker Heights in 2013 that “even well-off African American students fall far behind White students in a continuation of the Black-White achievement gap on Ohio achievement tests in 2012” (WCPN Morning News, September 22, 2013). Schools should understand and organize on the notion that Black Americans share middle-class values on education, that they share the belief that education is a human aspiration, and work to change the the narrative that education can be measured by narrow standardized testing, and vigorously combat the annual hand-wringing over Black-White testscore gap that monopolizes the airwaves every fall.

Lewis and Diamond (2015) summarize the above strategic notions into a simple every-day mantra:

Leaders must rise to the challenge of keeping the larger history of race in mind when we are trying to understand daily processes (p. 5).... We must keep in mind the “larger history of the race with its multiple penetrations and reverberations in the present in mind....

These reverberations are both ‘big’ (wealth gaps) and ‘small’ (minor daily exchanges...) (p. 6).

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