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Students Are Often Told Success Means Leaving Their Neighborhood. It Doesn’t (Opinion)

When I first became a principal in my beloved west Philadelphia neighborhood, one of the more alarming things I noticed was the number of colleagues I would hear tell kids to get their education and “get out”—to get out of their communities, to move away from their parents and grandparents and friends.

These well-intentioned but misinformed educators may have been trying to see our students “do better” for themselves, but the effect was painting the place and community that our students called home as a sort of vortex where personal and professional success was impossible. The only way to be successful, these students were told, was to put distance between them and their people, to erase their connections, their history.

Yet, a recent book argues that to be truly successful, to fully thrive, our students need to often hear the exact opposite. In Stay and Prevail: Students of Color Don’t Need to Leave Their Communities to Succeed, Nancy Gutiérrez, the president and CEO of The Leadership Academy, and Roberto Padilla, a superintendent in the Bronx borough of New York City, make the case that we need our community members to lean in, weigh in, and lead in our schools and beloved communities.

Too often, educators promote the “leave to succeed” narrative. In essence, students of color in our schools across the nation are told to leave their neighborhoods if they want to achieve any level of success. Stay and Prevail pushes back against this message and describes how this undermines these students (and their communities) and exposes low expectations and biases.

As school leaders, we have the opportunity to set the tone and change this damaging narrative. Rather than inadvertently slipping into messages that are subtly—or not so subtly—signaling to Black and brown students that their people and places are things to escape from, we can run toward the communities in which we serve, in which we work, in which our students live.

From my own experience as a school leader, I’ve seen that community engagement can mean so much more than a thoughtful communications strategy and parent town halls. I was raised in west Philadelphia, attended a state school, and returned to west Philadelphia to teach and lead classrooms and schools. Students saw that I embraced my roots and theirs. My asset-based approach about our community gave my students agency to also see themselves as critical resources in that community. It showed them the value of investing in their own families, neighbors, connections, and relationships—both as students and later as adults.

With the need for more Black, brown, and Indigenous teachers in our communities, the last thing potential and aspiring educators need to hear from teachers is don’t come back. Displaying cultural incompetence by openly or implicitly disparaging communities—especially communities that have been systematically underresourced because of race—undermines efforts to create inviting pathways to teach.

I am proud of the opportunities I gave my former students to learn more about their communities, dive into their histories from the rich primary sources about who lived there, and express what they were committed to change and uplift. Many of those former students are leading their own classrooms and schools in west Philadelphia today.

In Stay and Prevail, Gutiérrez and Padilla offer school leaders actionable advice and guidance to counter the leave-to-succeed narrative. Recognizing how pervasive it is in schools is a critical first step. School leaders can also encourage students to create stories of self that celebrate and detail their personal and cultural backgrounds and histories.

Breaking down barriers between school and community is also important. One way that Gutiérrez and Padilla recommend educators move beyond a pervasive deficit-based instructional approach: Be curious about the communities you serve and learn histories from members of the community. Developing curricula and innovative learning experiences that elevate local histories and the lived experiences of students can also be a powerful strategy to bridge the school-community divide.

Too often, educators do not live, shop, hang out, or attend events in the communities in which students live. School leadership teams, principals in particular, can send a powerful signal by embracing community members, businesses, and strengths—even if their homes are elsewhere. Bring the community into the school, show students that their neighborhood is something to love, draw inspiration from, and respect, no matter how “challenged” it may be or look to an outsider.

Fundamentally, we as school leaders and educators committed to ensuring that all students have the opportunity to thrive must embrace the moral obligation to lead equitably. That means being fair and compassionate leaders for all students, and staff, no matter where they call home. This starts with remembering that schools usually don’t have their own communities; communities have schools within them. This shift in orientation invites us to reconsider our language and mindsets about our students and those who have had aspirations for them since birth.

That starts with respect for and openness to the communities that our students call home. Helping students succeed alongside their community members is our call as educators committed to justice and equity for our students.

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