By Piazadora Footman
October 7, 2014
In March, I read a report from the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights about racial inequities in education. Its findings were discouraging, but in many ways they validated my own experience.
Black students are suspended and expelled at three times the rate of white students. Black students are more than four times as likely as white students to attend schools where one out of every five teachers does not meet all state teaching requirements.
I felt that the report was telling my son’s story.
|The author and her son.Credit: Todd Antonio Somodevilla|
Last year, I saw my son, now age 9, at the lowest of lows in his classroom. He was hitting other children, spitting on them, stealing, leaving the classroom and even kicking a teacher. He barely got any schoolwork done. Things got so bad that he got two in-school suspensions.
All this time, Xavier, who is in special education, was in an “integrated co-teaching class” with a full classroom of other children. I took him to counseling, and the therapist recommended that he have a paraprofessional at school, for one-on-one support for a time, but the school said it wasn’t needed.
I really don’t know why. It seemed as if they saw him as a bad child, not a child with needs the school could help to address. Meanwhile, Xavier was becoming nothing but angry and sad.
During my son’s darkest moments, I blamed myself — Xavier was in foster care when he was little, and I know that had an impact. I myself was in foster care as a child. I cried many nights wondering why my parents were not with me, and I did poorly in school.
But I also felt that the school was making my son’s behavior worse. Xavier’s school seemed happier to punish him than to help him. For three years it pushed him to the side because it didn’t know how to deal with him.
I often wondered to myself whether this was happening in every public school, to all special education children or just to my son. Now I know that it’s happening in many schools, to many children of color.
Six months ago, I was able to get my son transferred to another public school. I’ve been able to see how a child can thrive with the right support. This new school is awesome. It immediately placed my son in the right setting — there are only 11 students in his class. Xavier is doing great. No outbursts, no being sent to the principal’s office. Instead, Xavier is going in early for math tutoring. He is passing spelling tests. He is rushing in the house after school to do homework because now he understands it.
Last week Xavier made it on the honor roll. When the teacher invited me to the honor ceremony, I thought, “I wonder if Xavier’s going to be on the honor roll for ‘fastest runner in gym,’ or ‘great painter.’ ” When the teacher called his name and said, “You’re on the honor roll for math,” I just cried. I really overreacted. I was overwhelmed with happiness
When I read that Department of Education report, I was relieved to see some attention being brought to what is happening to children in school. I want to know the next step. How can we track the schools that use harsh punishments? How can we reach out to those schools to train their teachers? How can schools educating black and Latino students get the resources to improve teaching?
I’d like New York City’s Department of Education to pay attention to schools that have a track record of suspending little children. These schools need either new resources or new leadership to change.
I also wonder how parents can come together to press for change. Like me, many parents whose children misbehave in school are ashamed. We feel that our children’s problems are entirely our fault. But children of color who are only 3 or 4 are getting expelled from preschool! I’m telling my story to give other parents the courage to speak up.
Children need to be taught with love and understanding. They respond when their teachers care and have the training to get results. Now that Xavier is supported at school, he’s doing better at home as well. I no longer have to beg or bribe him to do his homework. Xavier is even calmer in how he interacts with his little sister. The other day, I noticed him fixing the collar on her shirt. Before, after a long, painful day at school, he would have been driven crazy if I just asked him to help out.
Now, I’m finally getting my son back.
Piazadora Footman is an editorial intern at Rise Magazine, a publication by and for parents affected by the child welfare system.