Skin in the Game: Cultivating a Culture of Success in Charter Schools

Public education is failing students of color. It is ripe for disruption. Enter charter schools. They are a private and public hybrid. I completely understand the critics who state that they are responsible for a type of brain drain where the most motivated and engaged students leave the public schools for ones that are chartered. This results in more isolated population of students who are left behind. There is, nevertheless, a role for charter schools to address the calcified state of public education. It is a partial response. The task of overhauling public schools remains for the one million school children in New York City.

I believe in improving public education writ large. When I joined the Collegiate Academy for Mathematics and Personal Awareness (CAMPA)  Board of Trustees in 2015, I wanted an opportunity to build a new school from the ground up.  I wanted to part of a solution that addresses the current state of public schools. The fact that crisis is an adjective often applied to schools in the urban centers is appropriate.  I have also come to realize that that charter schools like CAMPA are a necessity. It is located in East New York where zone schools routinely post below average scores on Regents exams. CAMPA will go beyond the drill-and-kill and has instituted a college preparatory curriculum for middle school students.

As an educator who began my career at Benjamin Banneker Academy for Community Development, I was witness to a high functioning and high academic achieving public school. As a professor of education, I now see that Banneker Academy was an exceptional academic institution. Dr. Daryl Rock was the principal during the ten years I spent as a teacher and administrator. He is a model head of school who insisted on cultivating a staff and student body of culturally aware and ones who demanded excellence in education. Dr. Rock convinced George Leonard to come out of retirement and serve as the principal for CAMPA’s second year. Mr. Leonard is an award-winning educator who was instrumental in shaping my early career. In fact, he saved my bacon when he served as the Banneker dean during the always difficult first year teaching. I am forever indebted to Rock and Leonard as I found my voice as a master teacher.

With the combination of Leonard, Rock and Richmond, CAMPA is off to an auspicious new year. I cannot forget the entire squad: teachers who will do the hard work of training these young scholars, administrators in the front office and the board members who have put in hundreds of hours into executing the school mission. It has been truly a cooperative group effort. Like Banneker Academy, CAMPA has a very specific vision of education to instruct students in the pedagogy of race. The culture of the school is built on the idea that all students are educable and success is expected.

‘Til the Next Episode: A Black Nerd Manifesto

New Zealand

I am a nerdy black chick. Been that way since my childhood in California when I bought the trilogy of Lord of Rings for 10¢ each at the San Leandro Public Library book sale in 1986. I absolutely love J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterpiece. I have bought the books, ebooks, DVDs, director’s cut DVDs, and the iTunes movie versions of the trilogy.  I have read and reread the books. I have also watched the movies and listened to the DVD cast commentary countless times.

I visited New Zealand in 2013 and unironically took the Lord of the Rings tour in Queenstown. The landscape vistas were stunning. I felt connected to the book and vision of the film. I did, however, draw the line when the tour guide suggested recreating the death scene of Ned Stark Boromir. I am, nevertheless, a super fan. Been one for thirty years.

I am also woke. It never occurred to me until reading the Jon Boyega’s GQ interview that Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones lack diversity. And it is an apt critique. The Star Wars world has a much better track record: from Billie Dee Williams as Lando to Boyega as Finn, those movies contain a healthy degree of diversity. Game of Thrones does include vaguely identifiably people of color: from the Dothraki to folks in Dorne. Lord of the Rings does not.

This leads to several unsettling questions: Am I suffering from false consciousness? How did I miss this fact after all these years? Is my woke card revoked?

It is Boyega who states quite eloquently in the interview, “I ain’t paying money to always see one type of person on-screen…you see different people from different backgrounds, different cultures, every day. Even if you’re a racist, you have to live with that. We can ruffle up some feathers.”

Good on him. And I totally agree. I can only hope for a future reimagining of a dynamic and diverse cinematic world even beyond the one that exists in Tolkien’s books and Jackson’s films. I will pay to see that Lord of the Rings remake.

Lessons from Charlottesville: The Pedagogy of Race


The events of Charlottesville, while deeply troubling, are part of a long history of race and injustice in America. The media cycle has played out predictably: righteous anger by people of conscience, strong and middling condemnations from liberal and conservative leaders, protests and counter-protests. And then there is President Trump. He has never been an example of a profile of courage. His true north is to stoke the flames of racial antagonism. His refusal to give a full throated condemnation of neo Nazis in particular and white supremacy in general is, well, SAD.

Leaving aside Trump’s moral equivocations for the moment, the question before us is this: how can we, educators, activists and people interested in social justice, proceed? This is a question of particular interest to me who is in business of training the next generation of teachers. August is the moment when summer is winding down for most people. My news feed is filled with those enjoying the last bit of summer break. For teachers, however, August is do-or-die time. Teachers are feverishly planning for the upcoming year right now. As educators are editing lessons plans, mastering national and state standards, and decorating classrooms, my exhortation is consider race in the classroom.

The lesson from Charlottesville is that racial injustice in America is an active and living entity. It has not been relegated to a historical matter. I believe that education, as first exemplified in the landmark case, Brown v. Board of Education, has always an area for civil rights activism. Teachers who acknowledge fully that there is an education gap between the achievement between minority and white students can go about addressing it. They must craft a culture of inclusion that flattens privilege and truly believes in the success of all students. This is where the best practices enter the conversation. Those teachers during August must also craft a genuinely multicultural curriculum, which is based on the high standards of each discipline.

Yes, teachers are on the front lines and have an incredibly difficult job. Race is here. Those educators whose mission is to instruct young people in the highest tradition of a liberal arts curriculum cannot ignore race. Not in the aftermath of Charlottesville.

Of Afros and Culture Wars

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Michael Vick has walked back his previous statement criticizing Colin Kaepernick’s afro. My sports intelligence is admittedly pretty low, but I do know that Kaepernick’s protest has raised the ire of many in the football community. His bravery and direct action has broken into my corner of sky. I like and whole-heartedly support him. He is my favorite #wokebae.

There is a long history of sports as a vehicle for expressing civil rights protest. There is a pretty straight line from Jackie Robinson’s desegregation of baseball in 1947 to John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s black power salute at the 1968 Olympics to Kaepernick’s action of kneeling during the national anthem. The idea that somehow sports should be apolitical arena is a fallacy.

Another important historical note is that it has been a means of entrepreneurial advancement, from Madam C.J. Walker in the early 1900s to the present. Styling black hair has been a lucrative and on-going element of the black business world. The opening of barbershops and hair salons are a cornerstone of the community. It is a key element of African American achievement.

Vick’s initial statement about the afro invokes a long-simmering culture war over presentation of African American hair. The idea that somehow it is outside of a professional realm to wear an afro is somewhat baffling. It has been a long struggle to win the argument that natural hairstyles are acceptable in the business world. I suppose this is another flashpoint in the national conversation about what is and what is not acceptable.

The cool thing about hair, particularly for people of color, is that there is a diversity and dynamism of styles. I have, in no particular order, have worn the following hairstyles: bantu knots, cornrows, box braids, French braids, flat-ironed straight, and flat ironed and curled. I have also worn my hair in a big, beautiful afro.

I am team afro. Let those natural curls shine.