When we moved to Pflugerville, TX from Prince George’s County, MD in 2019, schools were my biggest concern. Texas is a corporal punishment state and a state where many of the school districts have their own police departments — something that terrifies me. The school-to-prison pipeline is very real. National discipline disparities plague our educational system because of educators, state leaders, and a culture that sees and treats Black children as more dangerous and more adult than their white peers. Our move was four years after Sandra Bland died in a jail cell after a routine traffic stop. Even knowing that the state’s police had undergone lots of racial sensitivity training since then, I remain leery of police in schools. I know all too well that Black children are over-disciplined for minor, subjective offenses because of intrinsic and explicit biases — and that a police presence on campus escalates even minor discipline situations negatively for children who look like mine.

Death is obviously extreme — though it is constantly on the minds of Black mothers, who have witnessed too many children who look like ours gunned down while jogging or walking home from the corner store. I had a lot of anxiety around the idea that my daughter, whose brilliance often shows up as challenging authority, would find herself in the poor graces of some school police officer or teacher who doesn’t see her humanity.

We chose Pflugerville because it had the highest and fastest-growing Black population of the Austin metro area at the time (21 percent, compared to 7 percent overall in the Austin metro, but still a far cry from 63 percent in Prince George’s County). We’d only ever lived in places where we were in the majority. Not only that, but Maryland is generally considered a top state for education, ranking in the top five of most “best states for education” lists, and Texas is very middle-of-the-pack, usually ranking around 33rd.

Digging into the data

So I dug into the data. I looked at the top-rated elementary, middle, and high schools on sites like GreatSchools and then dove into equity data on Pro Publica’s Miseducation database. I wanted to see how the top schools lined up on things like discipline disparities and enrollment in gifted and talented programs and Advanced Placement (AP) courses. In Maryland, my children had been identified as gifted and talented, so I was particularly interested in how that would translate in Texas. But even if my children didn’t have that label, you can tell a lot about how a school views Black children by whether or not educators identify brilliance in their Black students proportionate to their enrollment in the school.

I ended up choosing a house that was zoned for a school cluster with a slightly lower GreatSchools rating (a 6, versus an 8 for the other option I was considering) because they scored a little better on the equity issues. We met a family who was going through the same process at the same time, and they chose the district with the higher rating. As we compared experiences throughout the year, it was clear that my gut was right — you can tell a lot about the culture of a school and how they view Black children from the data.

From microaggressions to overt racism

That is not to say our experience was without issues. There was the fourth-grade teacher who told my son, “We don’t do that.” when asked what they would be learning for Black history month. (He was confused because they’d been learning about the Chinese New Year, but he hadn’t seen anything on Black history month.) When I confronted the principal, it was clear they hadn’t even thought about Black history month. She referred me to talk to the one Black counselor, whom she introduced as the “head of the diversity committee.” As it turned out, that counselor didn’t even know such a committee existed. After I offered to pull together some curricular resources that met the state’s ELA standards, I was told there wouldn’t be enough time to implement them, but maybe I could help them organize a Greek step-show to check the Black history month box? There was the argument with the school administrator who said my daughter would have to drop her Pre-AP classes until next year when they could test her — despite the fact that she had earned A’s. (I absolutely didn’t go for that).

But we didn’t experience things that happened to our friends in other schools. Police being called on a child who was accused of stealing snacks from the teacher’s lounge. Outwardly racist teachers. A high school football coach threatening to press statutory rape charges on a Black child who was in an interracial relationship with a girl his same age. We experienced microaggressions for the first time, and that was enough for me, but I am clear others had it worse.

Finding a culturally affirming, rather than culturally competent, environment

I personally hate the idea of cultural competence. It is a popular term in education and corporate circles that refers to how to approach diverse populations. But competence has always felt like the bare minimum expectation, not a goal to shoot for. If you are in the classroom, you should be competent — we know this isn’t always true, but it should be a “permission to play value,” or a basic human decency trait. Cultural competence in school says we acknowledge there are Black students in our schools, and we may even acknowledge their lived experiences may be different from those of white educators. It is the half-step above “we don’t see color.”

Cultural responsiveness takes it a step further and says we are going to make an effort to learn what those lived experiences are and make an attempt to reflect them in the classroom. Maybe there are books with diverse characters, we have an international night at our school where students can bring in dishes that represent their various cultures. An effort is being made to accept, and not just acknowledge, our differences.

Just past cultural responsiveness, we get to the good stuff: Culturally affirming schools. The Oakland Community School was culturally affirming. Everywhere students went, they saw people who not only looked like them but reminded them of their value and what they brought to the table. A culturally affirming environment is one that says: I not only acknowledge and accept the ways we are different, but I value the way you show up. Culturally affirming environments recognize that students who employ African American Vernacular English (AAVE, also known as Ebonics or Black American slang) as benefitting from all the same cognitive advantages as bilingual students. In a culturally affirming environment, students’ overall success isn’t measured by their ability to assimilate into white dominant culture norms, like speaking white American standard English, or even performance on standardized tests that are based on white middle-class experiences. Instead, it recognizes the student’s lived experiences as assets and encourages students to see themselves as assets too.

When you find a culturally affirming environment, that’s when you’ll see your students start to love school. It might show up as a teacher who has them dissect Kendrick Lamar lyrics in a unit on poetry — K Dot is, after all, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer — or a teacher who has students identify the real from fake Jordan 1’s in a conversation about authenticity and value.

Weighing acceptance, rigor, and performance

When I feel like I have to choose between academic rigor and cultural acceptance, I always err on the side of sending my children to a school where they won’t have to defend their right to exist. I can supplement at home (and honestly, most public school curriculum anywhere is going to need us to do some of that anyway), but Alexander and Jordyn will never be the only children like them in a school and have to fight through belonging while they are trying to master algebra and literature composition.

One thing I look at is academic progress. Often schools that serve a large number of children who look like mine don’t have the highest test scores The tests aren’t written for us, and the expectations gap becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in schools with predominantly Black children. But it is important to see that growth is taking place. Ask your school’s principal to see students’ scores in key subjects like math, English/language arts, and science at the beginning, middle, and end of the year. Compare results year over year and see if students are trending up in the course of the school year and building on what they’ve learned the next year. If not, that’s likely an indication of a whole other culture problem.

You can’t always tell a book by its cover

It is also important to note that just because a school has Black teachers — or even leaders — that doesn’t automatically mean the culture of the school will be the best fit for your child. In Texas, I had an acquaintance who was on his district’s executive leadership team. He, like the superintendent, is Black. In fact, three of the five executive leaders on the team at the time were. So imagine my surprise when I was pouring through data one day and realized that his district, with a majority of non-white students, referred more Black male students to the court system than any other district in the area.

When I pointed this out to him, he was dismayed. He went into education to help little Black children, especially boys who reminded him of himself. How could he be part of the problem? “How much culturally responsive training have your teachers undergone,” I asked him. “None,” he admitted. “And I can say that with certainty, because I schedule all of their professional development.” He admitted that he’d been so focused on curriculum training and trying to enforce high academic standards that he hadn’t even considered the need for anti-bias training or professional development around cultural responsiveness, let alone how to affirm culture as an asset.

I always tell people that data on school performance is important, but it must be paired with the right narrative. Look at the numbers to get a baseline idea of whether any learning takes place at all in the school, but then talk to the leaders in the school you’re considering to see how they explain the data. There is a misconception that Black children in particular need to be taught to obey, even more so than being taught to master content and think critically. This is completely unacceptable.

I raise my children on love. I don’t want them reduced to survival at school. I want them to be free, to have joy, and to experience intellectual, emotional, and physical safety that encourages learning and exploration and nurtures curiosity. I am not a fan of schools that tout their strict discipline policies, or students’ militaristic ability to walk silently in a straight line. (When you look at those schools, what do the students often have in common?)

My children are in high school and the last year of middle school — I share that because I don’t believe these things are only important for young children. All Black children should have the opportunity to learn in environments that affirm them, see them as assets rather than projecting a deficit narrative onto them and allow them the space to thrive. In a world that’s biased to see them as more adult, more dangerous, and more promiscuous than white children, Black children deserve the space to just be children.

And we, as their parents, have a responsibility to demand all of the above from the schools in which we decide to enroll them.