I often wonder what it would be like to send my children to the Oakland Community School. The school, started by the Black Panther Party in the 1970s, was designed around the idea that education could and should be freeing — not the oppressive, restrictive experience too many Black students have in school. Kids were served breakfast at school. The teachers looked like them and shared their experiences. Parents didn’t wonder if the school would prioritize their child’s learning and development, and they didn’t feel like their children were unwanted burdens. Their children wouldn’t be the diversity problem educators have to solve for, or the achievement gap problem that they can’t figure out how to close, or the discipline problems that won’t go away.

But overwhelmingly in the U.S. public school system, that’s not the case. Children who look like mine are frequently seen as the problem in a system that wasn’t designed for them and continues to fail them. Still, our kids have to go to school. In our house, we have experimented with varying levels of homeschooling, but there are hundreds of thousands of children who look like mine who don’t have that option. So we have to be diligent about researching our school options.

Here are five evidence-based things I advise parents to consider when trying to decide which school is going to be an equitable, inclusive, and supportive learning environment for their Black children.

Key considerations when choosing a school for your Black child

  1. Teacher and staff diversity

    Key questions:
    How many people in the school building look like your child?
    Do Black teachers and staff hold leadership positions in the school?
    Do Black teachers teach advanced classes?

    Representation isn’t just a cute nice-to-have. Study after study shows it has a measurable impact on Black children. Black students who have just one Black teacher are more likely to graduate from high school and go to college. And Black students from low-income families, who are often deemed “at-risk” of dropping out, are 39 percent less likely to drop out of high school. Plus, Black children’s college-going aspirations increase by 19 percent when they have at least one Black teacher in third, fourth, or fifth grade. Black teachers are also more likely to spot the brilliance in your child: Black students are three times more likely to be identified as gifted when evaluated by a Black teacher, even when they have the exact same test scores as white students.

    Simply put: If a school cares about the academic success of Black children, they will hire Black teachers and empower them to lead in their areas of expertise. That means making teachers feel supported, investing in their professional growth, and working hard to retain them.

    How can you find this out?

    Start on the school’s website. Check the staff lists, look at the make-up of the administration. Who are the department heads? Next, send an email to the principal and ask. Be wary of schools that only have one Black teacher. They’re likely not providing an environment that makes Black teachers feel safe and supported. And if Black adults don’t feel safe and supported, it is likely your child may not, either.

  2. Gifted programs and advanced classes

    Key questions:
    How many Black students are in the gifted program?
    How many Black students are taking advanced courses?
    What are the prerequisites for enrollment in advanced courses?
    Are the numbers proportionate to the number of Black kids enrolled at the school?

    White students are almost twice as likely as Black students to be enrolled in Advanced Placement (or AP) classes across the country. We as Black parents know that isn’t because white students are inherently smarter or more capable than our children. Research shows that non-Black teachers tend to have lower expectations for Black students and what they can achieve in the classroom — and often, these become self-fulfilling prophecies. If the teachers and counselors in a school see your child as less brilliant, they will not think to recommend them for higher-level classes.

    This could also impact them when it’s time to go to college; several people I know say their high school counselors discouraged them from applying to top colleges and universities, saying things like “that environment will be too hard for you,” and “I don’t think you’ll be comfortable there,” despite their good grades in high school. I also have friends who have also reported having to fight through a lack of clarity and unnecessary gatekeeping around how to even have their children tested for these programs.

    How is Black brilliance regarded in the school you’re considering? Schools of education teach future educators to measure brilliance by white cultural norms, and that often excludes our children from being identified. If students who look like yours aren’t being identified and enrolled in gifted programs or advanced courses at the same rate as white or Asian students, that tells you a lot about the way that school culture is set up to view your child.

    How can you find this out?

    ProPublica’s Miseducation database offers a quick way to see data about how many Black and Hispanic students are identified as gifted at a given school, as well as how many are enrolling in AP classes. On the GreatSchools.org school profile page, in the Race/Ethnicity section, you can also look up data on how many Black students are enrolled in advanced classes. If the data seems old or partial, ask the school for their data and to share a breakdown about who has been identified as gifted at the school.

  3. Discipline disparities

    Key questions:
    How often are Black students suspended compared to other students?
    How do the rates of chronic absenteeism for Black students compare to other students?

    Black students are nearly four times more likely to be suspended than white students. We as Black parents know that our children are not inherently “bad”. In fact, we know our children are more likely to be punished at school — and punished more harshly. We live in a nation that criminalizes and overpolices the behavior of Black bodies. The white-dominant media and culture see Black children as less innocent and more adult than white children. Our children all too often don’t get the same grace other children get for the same developmentally normal behavior.

    A study by the Center for Court Innovation of New York City school students found that male students, Black students, Hispanic students, disabled students, and poor students were more likely to become justice-involved if they were suspended from school, even after accounting for students’ conduct and other factors. Being Black was the single greatest predictor of future school suspensions and incidents, the report found.

    Examining a school’s discipline disparities tells you a lot about how a school values the educational experience of students who look like yours. Who gets suspended? Who is more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions? In states and schools that allow corporal punishment, who is more likely to be paddled? Similarly, starkly different attendance rates suggest some children are not being engaged and may feel unwelcome.

    How can you find this out?

    GreatSchools.org shows disparities in suspension and attendance rates in the Race/Ethnicity section of its school profile pages. ProPublica’s Miseducation database offers discipline data as well. These are great places to get a snapshot of the school disparities, but since data can be up to two years behind, it’s also important to ask these questions and request information from school leaders. In a state where corporal punishment is allowed, ask to see their discipline records by race. Can parents opt their children out of corporal punishment? If so, what is the alternative method of discipline? Ask for details about the in-school and out-of-school suspensions and other discipline practices. How does the school prioritize each child’s learning over policing behaviors? Thoughtful, nuanced information versus short, dismissive answers can tell you a lot about the environment for your child.

  4. Are the kids learning?

    The great Shawn Carter (known by most as Jay-Z) once said, “Men lie, women lie, numbers don’t.” And while this isn’t always true — data, like anything else, can be manipulated to tell whatever story suits the narrator — numbers do offer a lot of insight. When considering a school’s overall rating and test scores, a particularly helpful data point is the school’s growth data or academic progress. True, this data is based on standardized test scores, but it’s a more nuanced way of looking at them. This data measures individual students’ learning year over year, so it’s a better measure of how well the school is helping students learn because it takes into consideration where children started and how much they gained over the course of a year.

    How can you find this out?

    Start by looking on the GreatSchools.org school profile page in the Academic Progress or Student Progress section. This data is typically available for elementary and middle schools. Students are tested in grades 3 through 8 and grade 11. Since this data depends on year-over-year testing, a K-3 elementary school typically won’t have an Academic Progress Rating or Student Progress Rating because they do not have fourth graders to test, and neither will most high schools because kids generally aren’t tested in tenth or twelfth grade. However, there are caveats. Some states and schools will have this data on their profile, and many schools will have it if you call and ask. Many principals welcome the opportunity to talk about the efforts and successes at their school — so reach out and ask. A school that is innovating and proud of their results can be very eye opening for parents and students alike.

  5. What does the school campus feel like?

    It is important — especially after looking at the data and doing some pre-work on the school you’re considering — to take a tour of the school and reach out to the school’s principal and counselors and schedule a time to meet with them in person. Some schools will not accommodate personalized requests such as these, but it’s definitely worth a try — and worth considering as part of the environment.

    How can you find this out?

    At the tour or meeting, discuss what kind of environment you want for your child, and pay attention to what the building looks and feels like. Is there a lot of natural light, or does it feel dark, dank, and soul-crushing? Is this a place and space where your child will feel happy and inspired? Are hallways and bathrooms clean and do they feel safe? Will the posters, banners, and messages on the wall be inspiring for your Black child? You want to get the sense of a place that will nurture and focus on your whole child’s needs: invitations to join clubs, activities your child would want to attend, calls to action that would matter to your child. You want an environment that will not only challenge and stimulate your child academically, but also a place and space where your child feels a sense of community and belonging and can have the freedom to develop their passions and find their purpose.

    Most importantly, you want to feel like the school values you as an equal partner in your child’s educational experience. I often say that school is a thing that is done to Black children, not for or with Black families. You may not be an educator, but you are your child’s first teacher and you are an expert on your child, so your input should be invited, welcomed, and appreciated.