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.