Creating Environments Where Black Students Can Thrive

As white adoptive parents raising a biracial son, my husband and I set out to equip him and ourselves with the tools to navigate an experience far more complex than our own. Long before he was born, we tried to prepare, educating ourselves by devouring research and resources about race and racism and talking to experts and people who have been in our shoes. But after Gabriel’s birth in 2011, everything we studied and prepared for was no longer theoretical.
We knew how important school would be in raising Gabriel, and we sought out a school with diverse families and children. Of the 18 kids in his class, about two-thirds were students of color. Gabriel has been enrolled at this independent school since he turned 2 and has never been “the only.” When Gabriel completed kindergarten, my husband and I participated in the official step-up ceremony where the kids in preschool through seventh grade gather on the last day of school, and each class steps up to their new teacher and class line. Parents filed into the humid gymnasium’s bleacher seats as each class entered the gym and took their seats on the hardwood floor. The kids were exploding with the joy of being 20 minutes from summer vacation, and their teachers beamed with pride. Admittedly, my eyes filled with tears of joy as Gabriel’s class rose and sprinted 5 yards to the first grade line. The whole place went crazy as parents scrambled to capture it all on their smartphones.
Eighteen children––six white––moved from kindergarten to the next line. The advancing first grade class, 17 children as diverse as their successors, moved to the second grade line. But as each grade stepped up, my joy turned to confusion even as I sat clapping. I noticed that the classes were smaller in size and appeared whiter. Why? What was happening? Was I seeing the difficulty that independent schools have in retaining students of color play out? This got me thinking more about why parents of Black children choose a school—or choose to take them out of a school. And what it would cost our son to remain in a predominantly white school.   

Confronting My Privilege

My husband and I talked for a long time about where witnessing the stepping up ceremony left us. We knew that we wanted to do everything in our power to change that outcome, but I often wondered how and where to start. So, I did the thing that helps me organize: I started writing an email to the new head of school. I wanted to open lines of communication about the school’s community and express my desire for action to be taken. I stated that maintaining the diversity of Gabriel’s class was a top priority and that faculty and staff should reflect that diversity. It was a nonnegotiable for us that Gabriel sees himself explicitly as part of the community of learners. I soon learned the short-sightedness of my approach.
When it comes to our child’s education, we as white parents are used to being consumers with high expectations, entitled even. Black parents may be somewhat more measured because they are never quite sure whether the school’s subsequent actions are motivated by feelings of resentment toward the parent, taken out on the child. And Black children will always be more vulnerable to adverse action. Even a well-resourced or elite predominantly white school can leave a Black child feeling excluded and isolated, unmotivated, and lacking a healthy racial identity. And so, when I dug deep into my privilege and fired off my email to the head of school, I was quickly and firmly scolded by my closest Black friend, who blasted me for reacting out of my own conviction before considering that it could backfire on Gabriel if the school took out its resentment toward me on him. I didn’t think about it because I never had to. But my friend always had to.
Fortunately, my husband and I were indelicately confronting this issue with a thoughtful, receptive white woman who accepted the head of school position for precisely the reasons we chose the school in the first place: She wanted to work in a school with a diverse community of families and to help cultivate an inclusive environment where all students feel like they belong. We set up a time to meet with her in person (pre-Zoom days) and discussed how she viewed and understood the retention of students who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). We discussed how she and the board of trustees would address the absence of BIPOC teachers and staff and what resources would be committed to hiring and retaining BIPOC teachers and students. Thus, began a now four-year partnership to ensure that our child grows up in an environment that is intentionally designed for his success. The school community worked to create a faculty and parents committee focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI); expanded DEI training and education for teachers; infused the curriculum with more inclusive books, history, art, and music; and engaged Black male coaches in soccer, basketball, and chess.

Why Representation Matters

Gabriel is now in third grade, and each year has included marvelous signs of progress and recognition of new growth opportunities for both him and the school. The school’s books, art, music, and co-curricular activities are more mindful that representation matters, yet Gabriel has only ever had a white woman teaching his class in his eight years.
In our experience, we have found that white teachers are not as comfortable as Black teachers with confronting issues of racism or facilitating challenging dialogue. But the positive outcomes of Black teachers for Black students abound. According to Black Students Who Have One Black Teacher More Likely to Go to College, a 2018 report by Johns Hopkins University and American University researchers, if a Black student has just one Black teacher by third grade, the student is 13% more likely to enroll in college; Black students who have two Black teachers were 32% more likely. Because of implicit bias, white teachers don’t always see this potential in their Black students. What can derail Black children fast and effectively is how white teachers perceive them, then consequently having and setting low expectations for them. Parents must assess if a school environment is structured for their child’s success. Gabriel goes to an excellent school with devoted faculty and staff; however, we are persistently looking for signs to gauge if the school is affirmatively committed to fostering Black students’ well-being.
One thing we look for is positive representation in his history lessons. My husband and I read and feverishly work to learn the history that was never properly taught to us, so we empathize with teachers trying hard to do the same. With most of our life experience formed by Eurocentric history lessons inside largely segregated communities and schools, it is not a simple pivot for a white teacher to unlearn biases embedded in that narrative. Frankly, as a white mother, I am still nervous that I will say the wrong thing. But I have learned that saying nothing has even more dangerous outcomes.

Education has long been touted as the “great equalizer.” However, passive education environments in which teachers don’t engage with race equalize nothing for children of color. Well-resourced schools and qualified teachers are not enough to meet the individual needs of students. To achieve positive educational outcomes for children of all races and backgrounds, school leaders must constantly examine and intentionally design the learning environment. This includes a curriculum that dispels false images and stereotypes, book lists that feature works that empower marginalized students, implicit bias training for teachers and administrators, and a clear plan and committed resources for hiring and retaining teachers of color and enrolling and retaining students of color.
Our son must be taught about race in a way that is most empowering for him. The consequences of just hoping children see themselves positively or feel like they belong are just too great for hope.
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Kathryn Peach D’Angelo

Kathryn Peach D’Angelo is an administrator at Temple University and the parent of a third grader at an independent school outside Philadelphia. She is the co-author with Valerie I. Harrison of the book Do Right by Me: Learning to Raise Black Children in White Spaces.