"I went to the type of school as a child that I struggle with as a parent."

Black History Month isn’t all about looking back; it’s also about looking forward. So we’re passing the mic to some team members this month, to reflect on how their experiences and identities as Black women—in education, community, and family—have shaped their aspirations for the future.

A New Orleans Navigator asks what her own educational experience can teach her as she guides her daughter through hers.

Rameisha “Ramie” Johnson is a New Orleans native, proud mom, and veteran school counselor and enrollment advisor. As a Navigator and Manager of Navigator Operations, Ramie supports parents across the Greater New Orleans area with school choice and enrollment processes—while she is also navigating that for her own daughter.

I had more opportunities at school growing up than my daughter does now. At home, my daughter has access to so much more than what I had. I remember going a month without the lights being on and having to move in with another family for a few months. My daughter has never had to have those worries. But in school, I had all of this stuff that Ra’Son doesn’t. And the only reason I had more educational opportunities as a child was because I was deemed smart enough to get them, by getting into selective admissions schools. So I’ve been grappling with the realization that I went to the type of school as a child that I struggle with as a parent.

I went to four different schools before second grade. First I was out of district, so I had to move. Then I went to a private school, but my grandmother couldn’t afford to keep me there, so I moved to another school that I just really didn’t like. And then I ended up at this selective enrollment school where I was identified as gifted and offered all the resources and opportunities that being in that space brought. In part, Ra’Son’s early school experiences were shaped by the fact that I was adamant that my daughter would not move schools as much as I did. But by leaving her in the same spot for so long, even though she wasn’t learning enough at her first school, it really ruined her early educational experiences. I had prepared her at home up until kindergarten—and she attended a great preschool—and she tested above grade level in kindergarten. She was doing great. But despite all the interventions I can afford for her, it has just gone downhill academically since then.

Ra’Son didn't read her first novel in class until she was in sixth grade. Growing up, as soon as we were able to start reading, we were reading novels as a class. Is that because I went to a selective school? Was that not the standard in the other schools? And why not? So now I'm heartbroken, because I've had all these expectations for what I thought my child's education could be, based on what my education was, and she just isn’t getting that. You know how they say you have “champagne dreams on a beer budget”? Maybe I had selective admissions dreams on an open enrollment budget. It’s not that her school necessarily has low expectations for the kids, but they don’t seem to have the tools to uphold higher ones. I think a lot of caregivers don’t recognize the ways their children’s schools are falling short, because their own school experiences weren’t great. They see their children being “loved” in school, and that feels nice—but in reality they’re getting fun-filled holiday activities and good grades for meeting low expectations. They’re not getting what they really deserve.

Every time I've tried to right the ship for Ra’Son over the last six years, I'm met with such resistance. All I've ever wanted to do is support her teachers in her education. And I have not been able to do that. Everything I’ve tried has been in conflict with her schools. I don't think my grandmother experienced that. Was there more of a partnership between schools and families when I was a child? Is it because the expectations were so much higher for me than they are for my daughter now?

I think it’s really problematic to cream some kids off like we do through selective admissions. But as a parent, I also understand why caregivers fight so hard for those seats—because we want those opportunities for our children. Ultimately, though, we are left with a system where not all kids have access to the same resources. And all the kids miss out, because they don’t have the opportunity to learn from each other as much as they learn from their teachers. I think about this because my daughter is a musician. And her musical skills would not have improved had she not been amongst students who were playing at a higher caliber. If you don’t have that mix of kids, including those who are able to grasp material more readily, then the kids who are having a little more trouble don't have an opportunity to see that it's possible. And the kids for whom school is easy don't see that there are others who learn differently, and that all students deserve the same opportunities.

That's where I'm stuck as a parent. If you get rid of selective admissions, you run into other problems. Tracking models within open enrollment schools maintain the status quo, too. It’s another way for schools to brag about the kids doing all these great things—but don’t pay attention to those other kids in the closet.

Where do we go from here? And how do families navigate this? I think as parents and especially as Black parents, when it comes to thinking about our children’s experiences, we like to talk about moving on from the harsh things that we've dealt with in the past. We want to change them for our own children. But some of what happened in the past was worth keeping. I need kids being held accountable to come back. I need kids being expected to do stuff in school, no matter what type of school they’re in. It can’t just be in selective schools that kids are asked to do that. And most of all, I need parents to be able to sit in rooms (or Zooms) together and talk about our own academic experiences—to hear, heal, and help create the educational spaces where all children are thriving, and families and schools are in true partnership.

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