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An Unequal Partnership: The Challenges Black Parents Face in the Education System

Rooted in Resilience: Black Parents Educational Advocacy

Sitting in a chair across from my child’s principal, I am exhausted from a conversation I haven’t yet had but somehow feel like I’ve had a thousand times over. My face hurts from the broad smiles I have flashed to every staff member since I rang the bell at the entrance. My voice drips in honey as I inquire genuinely about the day the receptionist is having. I thank the principal’s executive assistant for escorting me. We exchange a knowing glance as an irate parent emerges from the principal’s office. The parent loudly expresses dissatisfaction with how the principal handled whatever brought her to campus today, and I am jealous. 

I can never afford to be that outwardly upset at my children’s school. 

You might believe I am overcompensating unnecessarily, but I have worked in schools for a long time, even longer than I’ve been a parent. I have been on the other side of a closed office door where a Black parent’s outward expressions of frustration got them labeled as “difficult,” their concerns then dismissed and left unheard.  I know the assumptions, prejudices, and dismissals that come with a Black parent showing too much emotion. 

Even though my child is not progressing as he should, even though I am worried and anxious about how to support him, I am not allowed the full range of human emotions when I go to his school to talk with staff. I remind myself not to take the dismissive body language, patronizing tones, condescension, or microaggressions personally. I must stay focused on my son. I must be firm, polite, and direct without seeming bossy, demanding, or frustrated. When questioning the actions taken towards my child and the motives behind them, I must choose my battles wisely. Forgetting to do any of these things comes with the price of being labeled combative, unsupportive, or angry, all at my child’s expense.

I never miss an opportunity to overcompensate because I am fighting a never-ending battle against an unseen nemesis that works overtime to convince me that it doesn’t even exist.

But when it comes down to it, I stand ready to fight for my child, to raise my voice in a world that too often silences Black voices. I know that what the school may see as words and actions rooted in emotion, are really rooted in equity.

This battle stretches back generations, yet change moves slowly. As I steel myself for the challenges of the coming years, I draw courage from the strength of my ancestors. I lift my eyes to a brighter tomorrow they dreamed of and take my place among the enduring lineage of Black families pushing tirelessly to be seen, heard, and valued. Though the road ahead is long, I will persist in hope.

The Promise of Integration Was Never Fulfilled

I never miss an opportunity to overcompensate because I am fighting a never-ending battle against an unseen nemesis that works overtime to convince me that it doesn’t even exist. 

But when it comes down to it, I stand ready to fight for my child, to raise my voice in a world that too often silences Black voices. I know that what the school may see as words and actions rooted in emotion, are really rooted in equity.

This battle stretches back generations, yet change moves slowly. As I steel myself for the challenges of the coming years, I draw courage from the strength of my ancestors. I lift my eyes to a brighter tomorrow they dreamed of and take my place among the enduring lineage of Black families pushing tirelessly to be seen, heard, and valued. Though the road ahead is long, I will persist in hope.

“Nothing changed for black children in Houston after the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregation unconstitutional.”

2004 Houston Chronicle

In 1956, two brave Black Houston families risked sending their two daughters onto the integration battlefield. Ross Phlegm attempted to integrate at Sherman Elementary and Marion William’s family attempted at McReynolds Middle School. Neither made it past registration and into a classroom. Thus beginning a battle for integration of Houston schools that lasted nearly 30 years.

By 1964, ten years after the Brown v. Board decision, only 3% of HISDs Black children students had been integrated and Houston still remained one of the most segregated cities in the country with fewer than 3% of Black students integrated into in HISD schools. The district resisted fully integrating for an additional 20 years until it was finally forced by a federal ruling in 1981 to end segregation.

Despite this ruling and the best efforts of Black families, it wasn’t until a full three years later in 1984 that the district finally achieved full integration.

The promise of integration has not been fulfilled.

Despite the decades-long battle to integrate Houston schools, the promise of true equality through integration remains unfulfilled to this day. In practice, Black families and students still face the challenges of navigating a system that may be physically integrated but still struggles to invest in educational praxis and pedagogy aimed to help Black children succeed. Daily, Black families are forced to navigate a system of racial microaggressions and school engagement approaches that feel more punitive than collaborative. Oftentimes interactions for Black families can feel like a battle, appreciated when we agree and dismissed when we do not.

During earlier efforts to integrate, Black parents heard yelling voices openly proclaiming, “you don’t belong here.” Now the questioning voices arise in subtle tones implying “you don’t know better” or “you have no power here.” In some ways, these indirect whispers cut deeper than shouts. At least overt racism doesn’t mask prejudice behind polite smiles. Yet whether boldly stated years ago or softly intimated today, the message still suggests Black parents shoulder blame for educational obstacles.

More than six decades after the historic ruling of Brown v. Board, the promise of a truly integrated school system remains unfulfilled, as systemic inequities and persistent racial disparities continue to plague Houston’s education system.

In a space where data and research overwhelmingly show that educational equity for Black families is still a dream deferred, we can’t afford not to work together.

Today, Black parents continue to advocate for their children’s right to a quality education, organizing, mobilizing, and partnering with educators and community leaders to address systemic inequities and create positive change. Too often it is parents advocating on one side and educational leaders on the other.

Were I ever asked what schools could do to better partner with Black parents, I would say, “hear us, see us, respect us.”

Reframing Parent Engagement

The American education reform movement of the last fifty years included an emphasis on parent engagement as a critical piece of student academic achievement and school improvement. The goal of pulling parents into the business of schooling children is clearly well-intended, but the practical approach to engaging Black parents has fallen short of seeing those parents as partners.

A 2021 Carnegie report names three school-based challenges to authentic parent engagement.

1. Parents are excluded from, or avoid, discussions about their children’s education.

Parents may avoid conversations with their children’s schools due to past anxieties as students themselves, previous negative advocacy attempts, or fear of retaliation targeting us or our children. If teachers and principals lack real relationships with parents, they often rely on stereotypes or vague generalizations to justify inaction.

2. Parents are excluded from, or avoid, discussions about their children’s education.

Parents may avoid conversations with their children’s schools due to past anxieties as students themselves, previous negative advocacy attempts, or fear of retaliation targeting us or our children. If teachers and principals lack real relationships with parents, they often rely on stereotypes or vague generalizations to justify inaction.

“The unspoken and often-ignored dynamics [of race] influence how families are seen and treated by educators…families may be seen and valued [while others are] discounted and ignored.”

Embracing a New Normal: Toward a More Liberatory Approach to Family Engagement

3. We frequently arrive at school to be treated like students ourselves.

We spend an hour with parent liaisons and community outreach coordinators who instruct us on the importance of reading at home to overcome vocabulary gaps or how to navigate systems at school. While those things are important, there is often no space for the parent to be heard.

Approaching every Black parent with the mindset that school is the authority and parents must learn from them is rooted in a desire to assimilate people of color to “our way of doing things.” I was, and am, my child’s first teacher. When I show up to do my part as a partner in his education, I do not arrive devoid of ideas, experiences, or expertise on how to teach my son. I come to contribute as a shared architect in shaping and building his educational experience.

“We have an education sector where many cannot imagine a world in which their work is inextricably tied to authentic partnerships with families. Models for effective family engagement have not been baked into our educational system.”

Embracing a New Normal: Toward a More Liberatory Approach to Family Engagement

From: Building Authentic School-Family Partnerships Through the Lens of Social and Emotional Learning

As I’ve noted earlier, I am not only a parent, but a former educator. I have had these experiences as a parent, and regrettably, I have contributed to this experience for other parents as well.

The practices that get passed from one generation of educators to the next must undergo critical analysis if we are to mindfully examine the ways that our attitudes about race have impacted the school-home connection. As a parent and practitioner, I must be invested in interrogating what I blindly accepted as standard operating procedure for engaging Black parents if I am to alter my practices to build genuine partnership that leads to results for students.

If you’re a teacher or school leader, here are a few considerations for building stronger, more productive partnerships with parents of color, especially Black parents.

Being Better Partners to Black Parents


From: Building Authentic School-Family Partnerships Through the Lens of Social and Emotional Learning

As I’ve noted earlier, I am not only a parent, but a former educator. I have had these experiences as a parent, and regrettably, I have contributed to this experience for other parents as well.

The practices that get passed from one generation of educators to the next must undergo critical analysis if we are to mindfully examine the ways that our attitudes about race have impacted the school-home connection. As a parent and practitioner, I must be invested in interrogating what I blindly accepted as standard operating procedure for engaging Black parents if I am to alter my practices to build genuine partnership that leads to results for students.

If you’re a teacher or school leader, here are a few considerations for building stronger, more productive partnerships with parents of color, especially Black parents.

  • Check your assumptions to build and restore trust. 
    Black parents in Houston carry the legacy of being segregated to underfunded schools, resisted as they attempted to integrate Houston schools, and further stigmatized by high-stakes testing results that deemed them unready for college or career. Engaging with school officials requires a deliberate focus on building trust that leads to relational partnership. Only when families truly start to feel that they are seen and that their thoughts and experiences are valued, will teachers get the full benefit of what families have to offer to advance student performance.

“Fundamentally, we believe that any family engagement practice that does not explicitly seek to build and restore relational trust is ultimately doomed to fail.”

Embracing a New Normal: Toward a More Liberatory Approach to Family Engagement
  • Plant yourself in our community.
    I was a teacher when a principal commented at a staff meeting, “If the only time you spend in this neighborhood is inside this building, you aren’t invested enough in my children to be teaching them.” Before Brown v. Board, segregated schools reflected larger segregation patterns. Black schools had Black teachers who taught Black students, all of whom lived in the same Black neighborhoods. Even a short conversation with a Black person of a certain age is likely to evoke memories of seeing their primary teachers everywhere in the neighborhood because it was their home, too. These informal touchpoints helped to create community ties that inextricably linked school, home, parents, and teachers. Explore the neighborhood in which you teach. Seek out the people and businesses that create the social lives of your students and their parents. Being seen at the neighborhood grocery store or the local barbecue smokehouse will increase your social capital with your school community while simultaneously helping you grow your asset-based understanding of the place where your students live.
  • Adopt culturally responsive classroom practices.
    One of the benefits of deeply knowing your parent community is developing a source from which to grow an understanding of cultural practices that can find a home in your classroom or school. Taking the time to explore, respect, and integrate the cultural practices of Black families will not only contribute to student-centered classrooms but will create a more welcoming environment for parents as well. It is hard to feel like an outsider in a place that has purposefully invested in reflecting my family’s cultural practices and beliefs.

  • Link our partnership to my child’s achievement.
    If the only time you contact a Black parent is for classroom management support, you’re missing a wealth of expertise. Engage Black parents in conversations about grade level standards. Enroll us in creating learning goals for our children. While the parent across a conference room table from you may not have studied child development, they have studied their children extensively, and they can use that expertise to help you pinpoint their learning preferences, academic strengths, extracurricular interests, and personal values, all of which could be instrumental in helping them grow and achieve academically.

Unity and Empowerment among Black Parents

Today, many Black parents continue to experience traditional deficit-minded  approaches and limited displays of partnership. Sadly, that means we often carry  the burden of figuring out how to cultivate an effective relationship with  teachers and school leaders. If you find yourself in a less than productive partnership with your child’s school, here are a few pieces of advice to equip you for the best possible outcomes:

Speak up early, often, and endlessly.

If you think your child is being left behind, unchallenged, or treated unfairly, say so. Avoid making accusations about intent, but be unafraid to name what you observe. If your child tells you they had a negative experience at school, validate and affirm them while seeking restoration instead of retribution. Ask questions about lesson plans and the goals that teachers have in mind for daily classwork and content mastery.

Call out poor communication.

If you are making decisions about where to enroll your child, make investigating channels and methods of communicating with parents a top priority. You should be able to contact your child’s teachers with questions about classwork and feel welcomed to request more formal touchpoints when you feel compelled. If the only reliable communication of your child’s academic and social progress comes at report card time, you are robbed of critical opportunities to investigate your child’s performance and help them course-correct.

Find community and empower each other.

In the face of challenges with my child’s school, I find solace in the unity of other mothers who share similar struggles. Our collective strength becomes a force against the isolation that can come with feeling unseen and unheard. Sharing our experiences, supporting one another, and celebrating our victories—no matter how small—become essential acts of resistance. Together, we navigate the intricacies of the education maze, lifting each other up. Whenever you make a visit to school for a parent event, make it a goal to connect with at least one other parent who can be your partner in staying connected to school events and holding adults accountable for keeping you in the loop.

Conclusion

The journey of Black parents navigating the educational system is fraught with challenges, often leaving us feeling like adversaries rather than partners. The historical context of segregation and systemic biases has shaped the dynamics of parent-school interactions, leading to a lack of trust and meaningful engagement. To truly address these issues and foster authentic partnerships, educators must first recognize and confront their own assumptions and biases. By actively listening to and respecting the expertise of Black parents, schools can begin to dismantle barriers and create environments that value diverse perspectives and contributions.

For Black parents, advocacy and empowerment are essential tools in navigating the complexities of the education system. Speaking up, advocating for communication transparency, and building networks and communities of support are crucial steps towards ensuring our children receive the educational experiences and opportunities they deserve.

By coming together and amplifying our voices, we can assert our rightful place as partners in our children’s education and advocates for meaningful change.

Through collective action and mutual respect, we can begin to build a more equitable and inclusive educational system that values and uplifts every child and family it serves.

Additional tools and resources

Prompts to Process:

    • For Families
        • Am I familiar with my rights as a parent within the educational system? 

        • How can I draw upon the rich cultural heritage and resilience within the 

        • black community to empower myself and advocate for my child’s educational needs?

        • How can I model and teach my child positive self-advocacy skills? Am I encouraging my child to communicate their needs, seek support when necessary, and take ownership of their educational journey?

        • How can I familiarize myself with relevant educational policies, procedures, and decision-making processes? How can I navigate these systems effectively to advocate for my child?

    • For Educators (taken from the Dual Capacity Building Framework)
        • Am I seeking input from, and do I listen to and value, what all families have to say? (Respect)

        • Am I demonstrating to all families that I am competent and that I see them as competent and valuable caretakers? (Competence)

        • Do I keep my word with families? (Integrity)
        • Do I show families that I value and care about them as people? (Personal Regard)
        • How can I shift from a deficit-based approach to one that recognizes and builds upon the strengths, resilience, and cultural assets present within families?

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GOOD Reads:

Resources for Educators:

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