Helping Minority Students Excel in the Classroom

Q&A with Katrina Boone
Helping Minority Students Excel in the Classroom

Andrea Ramirez, executive director of the Faith and Education Coalition – NHCLC, recently asked Katrina Boone how churches and parents can help support minority student success. As a former high school English teacher, and as an African-American who attended public schools, Katrina offers a uniquely practical perspective. She currently serves as director of teacher outreach for the Collaborative for Student Success.

Katrina, what challenges did you experience as an African American student growing up in poverty?

As a kid, I spent a lot of time feeling confused and unmoored. My siblings and I grew up in the type of poverty that came and went in waves. Sometimes the bills were all paid, our bellies were full, and we had cable television. But sometimes we missed meals or went without heat for months in the winter. That sort of unpredictability followed me to school. I struggled socially and emotionally, and I constantly felt unsure if my peers or teachers liked me or cared about me. Not knowing where my next meal would come from, or if I would have a warm, safe place to sleep was a burden I carried everywhere.

The structure of school confused me too. I enjoyed learning, and I was good at it. But I never felt particularly at ease in the classroom. I felt stressed and isolated. I knew I was poorer than many of my peers, I smelled and looked dirty, and I was brown in a sea of whiteness. I felt like school was a game at which I excelled, but I also was concerned that the game was rigged against other poor or brown students. We were supposed to focus on learning, but were distracted by growling bellies. When we struggled to control our emotions, we were removed from opportunities to learn. School was a game that I worried I wasn’t supposed to be playing, and as a teacher, I encountered many students who felt that way too.

You went on to not only graduate high school but also college – and you’ve earned a master’s degree. Who helped you imagine such a future? How were you supported through the process?

I remember, from a really young age, being told that I would go to college. It never felt like an option, and I’m grateful for that. My siblings and I spent a lot of time at a small church mission in the trailer park where we grew up, and I remember one family there, the Thompsons, that spoke so much truth into my life. Mrs. Thompson engaged me in really deep conversations about the books I was reading and the things I wanted to learn about when I went to college, and in doing that, made me feel like learning, both at church and at school, was something I should value.

The way the Thompsons loved my siblings and me, how they went out of their way to make us feel like we belonged at church just as much as anyone else did, was radical to me, in light of how I felt at home and at school. And my conversations with Mrs. Thompson were the first time that I realized that “school learning” could live outside the classroom and be a part of other areas my life.

Like I said before, I struggled to connect with my peers when I was young, but as I grew up, I had several teachers who made me feel like Mrs. Thompson did, who made me feel valued because of my life experiences, not in spite of them. They didn’t ignore the fact that I was poor, that I was different from my peers in so many ways. They found ways to make that part of my academic life. They taught me about Rosa Parks and Zora Neale Hurston. They helped me overcome learning challenges while refusing to back down from the high standards that had for all student. They refused to love me to failure – they knew that the best way to help me be successful was to push me beyond what society believed I could achieve.

Once you became a teacher, were the same challenges still confronting students of color and students in poverty?

Unfortunately, I think students of color and in poverty do face many of the same challenges I faced as a kid. Our education system has traditionally expected less from brown and poor students, sometimes out of bigotry, but sometimes out of love.

I’ve witnessed other teachers love students to failure, thinking, “There’s no way he can read this book,” or “Those kids can’t do this kind of math.” Often, that comes from a place of misplaced kindness. Teachers don’t want to watch kids fail, particularly when they think they’ve already had so much failure in their lives. The problem is that having low expectations for disadvantaged children only handicaps them more. Students trust their teachers. When teachers show students, through their actions, that they don’t believe in them, teachers perpetuate beliefs poor and minority students often already have about themselves—that they are inferior, that they are doomed to fail.

The good news is that it goes the other way too. When teachers hold students to high standards, regardless of the color of their skin, their zip code, or their family’s income, it can perpetuate other beliefs students have about themselves—that maybe they can overcome the odds, that maybe school is not a game but a place where they belong, where they can be successful.

How can Hispanic parents support students as schools and teachers raise expectations?

The most important thing parents can do is arm themselves with knowledge about where their students currently are— academically, socially, and emotionally.

The non-profit organization Be a Learning Hero has an amazing new tool called the Readiness Roadmap that can help parents understand what their children should be learning in school, identify their students’ academic and character strengths, learn more about their child’s emotional health and happiness, and plan for college.

As a former classroom teacher, I also think it’s important to have an authentic relationship with your child’s teacher. That begins with parent-teacher conferences, but it goes beyond that too. Ask for help understanding your child’s academic and emotional growth. Ask how you can support your child’s learning at home. Reach out to the teacher in small ways, like through an email, to ask if you can volunteer in the classroom or be helpful in another way.

The life of a classroom and a school can feel two-dimensional when they are only populated by teachers and students, but as a parent, you can add that third dimension, and make school more lively and engaging for both your student and his or her teacher.

What have you found to be most helpful in improving the educational process for minority and poor students?

As humans, we learn when we are stretched just beyond what we perceive to be own our ability. We cannot grow if we go only where we’ve already been. If we really seek to improve learning for students of color and students in poverty, we must design ways that we can deeply support them while also pushing them past what they’ve already achieved. We have to expect the same things for them that we would expect for any other student. High standards, challenging academic experiences, and thoughtful support are the only ways students can learn.

Changing education for students who have been systematically underestimated and underserved for hundreds of years can’t happen with shortcuts, either. They need consistent opportunities to pursue conceptual understanding in math, to build stamina and knowledge of the world through reading complex texts. They also need teachers who look like them, who have shared their life experiences. Most importantly, they need adults at home and in their communities who are equipped to support their academic, social, and emotional growth.

How can churches support educational success?

Last year I read an article about the widening opportunity gap between poor and wealthy kids, and it so aptly articulated one of the largest problems facing poor and minority students. They often don’t have pastors, mentors, or coaches in their lives, people who can serve as “air bags” to cushion the blows that life deals all of us. So Christians can step up in that way – by mentoring and shepherding kids who don’t have a strong adult presence in their lives.

Churches can also step into the gap for students in poverty by organizing Vacation Bible Schools that give students an opportunity to practice and strengthen the learning they acquired during the school year. Last year, churches in Louisville, KY, where I live, came together to combat “summer slide” by receiving training from our public school system. That training helped them design high-quality learning experiences for students around the same rigorous academic standards Kentucky schools use. I can’t think of a better opportunity to love children, to provide meals and fun for them, but also help them learn about the Bible through high standards for learning.

Lastly, I love the way that you, Dr. Ramirez, describe education as an opportunity to worship God, to outwardly express our inner commitment to love the Lord with all of our minds, as commanded in Luke 10:27. Education Sunday is a day of worship every year when we can all discuss how we will support students in following the call to love the Lord with all of their minds. Unfortunately, there are children in every community who doesn’t have access to a quality education, but Education Sunday is an opportunity to come together as a church and pray about how we can address that.

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Helping Minority Students Excel in the Classroom