An Open Letter to Black Parents Whose Suns Have Been Pushed Out of Preschool

 

Open Letter to Black Parents
Photo by Samantha Sophia on Unsplash

Dear Mom, Dad, Auntie, Grandma, family member of a Black sun:

I have to begin with this affirmation: I see you. I believe you.

As we gear up for the start of a new school year, I suspect you might feel the same familiar knots of tension beginning to twist in your stomach that I do, often coming at unexplained moments: while pushing him on the swing, while reading a book together, while chatting about his day over dinner. You’ll wonder if his new teacher will take the time to listen closely to the way he gets excited about superheroes, about building volcanoes with his friends, about waiting for a tomato to ripen before he can pick it.

You’ll wonder if his new teacher will listen to him at all.

You’ll covertly search the internet, chaining together all types of words in the search bar: whatiswrongwithmyblacksun, howtohelpmychildsurvivearacistteacher, whatdoidoknow, howdoihomeschool. You will wake up at night, run those searches in your head, check on him, cry, call your mother, tell certain friends who know your sun well that you are barely holding on, run new searches and get really interested in the presence of a higher power.

All the while, when his teachers begin to call you–daily–and report all the behaviors they are seeing that don’t conform to the school: asking questions without raising a hand, not sitting quietly during morning meetings, not sharing or taking turns, and on and on and on, and when you ask them what they are doing, and they assure you that they are “really working hard to get to know your child,” you believe them. On the rides home from school, the car turns into an inquisition and you take their side and not your sun’s when he explains that he was hungry as a reason for not listening and staying in the line, that he really wanted to play with the trains for a few more turns, that he was enjoying the running in the gym when he was told to stop, and he couldn’t quite understand why he had to drop everything at that very instant.

Looking back, you will mark this moment: when you wanted so much for him to be in that school, affiliated with Boston College and its reputation, that you took their side, and your child was wrong. Because you get star struck, a bit, thinking that these Ph.Ds in early childhood education who are supervising the teachers in its lab school will, surely, know what it means to “teach for social justice,” to have teachers who are “culturally competent.” Until, that is, you realize that they don’t.

A child is not a sacrifice.

It takes another group of Ph.D.s to tell you, to insist to you, to encourage you, that everything your sun is doing is developmentally appropriate. That there is nothing wrong with him and everything wrong with the school that promised to use its “well-developed, research-based early childhood program” to nearly destroy your child. A school that called itself a “partnership school” was simply concerned with maintaining its partnership with white supremacy and anti-Blackness.

After, 31 days after, to be exact, you replay all the ways the school wasn’t a partner at all: if a school was a partner, it wouldn’t have moved so quickly from working together to declaring that it “wasn’t a good fit.” It the school was a partner, there would be more children, faculty and staff that reflected the backgrounds of the children in the school, especially more children of African descent. If a school was a partner, it would truly embrace developmentally appropriate behavior, and evaluate its practices as such, changing them where appropriate so all children can thrive, not just ones who are able to sit quietly–as three year olds–on a mat, make multiple transitions around a building, share with others. If a school is a partner, it would not chastise children into “making good choices” and blame them when, at three, they didn’t quite understand what that would mean.

The shame that you feel will bring you to your knees. You will never cry as much as you have to this point in his young life, and you will not know what to do. You will recall the multiple times the school called you to pick him up because he could not finish the school day, the way your stomach dropped when you saw the number flash on your phone, the way you ran to your car, breathed your way through the tears so when you picked him up you could not be so angry you couldn’t think rationally. How embarrassed you felt when they rattled off a list of insurrections which, again, when you review them with your best friend who is a school administrator counters with, again, an acknowledgement of the behavior tempered with the developmental appropriateness of it all and wonderings about the teacher’s and the school’s abilities and competencies.

I imagine you’ll go through an amazingly difficult few months. You will encounter dissonance, as all the people who know your boy will be incredulous at the preschool’s verdict. Yes, he is not perfect. But, they insist, he is three.

Who kicks a kid out of preschool?

During that time, you’ll read different research, research citing the mind-blowing rates of Black boys being pushed out of preschool, about “exclusionary discipline” that begins the preschool-to-prison pipeline, that preschool teachers are implicitly biased against Black boys.

What you also begin to hear are the stories of others whose suns have also been kicked out of preschool. They whisper it to you, send you DMs, share anecdotes of parents they know, and you quickly understand that what happened with your child is not a one-off. You also understand how traumatic this experience is for children and their families.

He is one of many. He is not the problem. The school is the problem. Schools that are pushing Black boys out of preschool are the problem.

In that moment of realization, you’ll also admit that, in your belief of schools being places for all children–which you now know they are not–you have failed to protect the one thing that you promised to protect when you decided to mother this boy.

You have failed to protect his freedom.

Then, you will listen to your other friend, the one who has been with you every step of the way, who parsed the emails from the school and gave you the language to ask the probing questions, the one who held you up with encouragement when you worried about losing your job because you obsessed about missing too many days to leaving work early (you didn’t lose your job, BTW), who assured you that the tide was going to turn.

And it did, arriving in the form of a Black teacher, who, after spending one day with your sun summarized that “no one had taken the time to actually teach him what was expected,” and that she would. You will believe in second chances, and many more, saying many blessings that this tiny preschool had a middle-of-February opening.

Certainly, you will be on edge in the days and weeks after he begins at this new school, but you eventually come to believe that when she says “I won’t call you unless it’s an emergency,” she truly means it. You are able to focus at work. The changes don’t happen overnight. There will be plenty of times when your sun is unhappy and tired as he adjusts to her new way of doing things, but, as she gives you daily reports, they are always framed by what she knows he can do, what she expects him to learn, and that he is a “great leader,” “so smart,” “such a good friend.” She affirms what you have always known about your child and what you nearly allowed to be silenced by other preschools that simply did not take the time or effort to learn what you and so many others know to be true.

Even when you were on your knees, you knew that you had to do something to fight for him, and for all the others who have Black suns who are being pushed out of preschools around the country, at rates that exceed those of Black boys being pushed out of elementary schools.

The first step is telling our story, about how I nearly lost my boy to a racist school system that tried to destroy him, and that his story is not a singular one.

What happened to my sun happens to Black boys in preschool every single day.

There is such stigma and shame I experienced as I was so quick to think I was the problem. Instead, we are in a system that, if we do not intervene, will continue to push Black boys out of preschool, denying them experiences, teachers, schools, that have the potential to ground them in powerful educational beginnings.

We also need to draw on our resources: community, family, parenting groups, that are strengths-based, that create space for parents of color, that do not bat an eye at the rough play Black boys need. That love all of us, from the terrified parts of us to the brimming-with-joy parts of us. Many schools are not those places, but with some searching and, if necessary, willingness to build those spaces (podcast about my work doing that is here), we can give ourselves and our suns the nurturing we need, while also learning about schools and other educational school systems that are actively seeking to destroy Black boys and as we work to dismantle those systems. It is also in these spaces where we can share different stories and resources that help us find affirming places that will love our boys–and their families–in the ways we know they need.

I say to you what I wish I had been able to say to myself nearly a year ago, when we were so excited to begin a new school year, quickly having those desires turn to doubt, shame, anger and worry, and offer some final understandings:

  • Work really hard to find places that will nurture and love your Black sun. Those spaces are increasingly harder to find, but, they are out there.
  • Be willing to expand your ideas of preschool, realizing that a small, in-home preschool led by a Black teacher might be the optimal place for your child to thrive. When you go to visit it the first time, don’t try to compare this place to what you think preschools “should” be. This is the place you need, in more ways than you will ever know, and you’ll be grateful when you eventually make the decision to matriculate there (and that she has a space).
  • Lean on the people who will hold you up, who have known your child through all stages of his life (and who know all of his growing edges and yours, too), who can hold up a mirror to you and can remind you what is developmentally appropriate (and nearly everything is developmentally appropriate, even if a school doesn’t want to admit that).
  • Call out racism and bias in preschool and early childhood education (use the resources listed above to make your case). Ask for expulsion data, disaggregated by race and gender and use it to ask probing questions of a school. If there is already a pattern of expulsion for Black boys, your child will be no different. Sorry, he just won’t. You are not the problem, and neither is your sun. Have those people who are holding you up use their own power and experiences to call out the schools and other institutions who, unless we start speaking up, get away with pushing Black boys out of preschool.
  • Get yourself a really good therapist. They help. Another helpful resource is something like the Parent-Child Interaction Therapy program offered by the Judge Baker Children’s Center in Boston that will affirm developmental appropriateness and also help your parenting skills in phenomenal ways.
  • Listen to this song on repeat. “When you’re young gifted and black, your soul’s intact.”

He is your most precious gift. Don’t let anyone let you believe otherwise. And if a teacher or school doesn’t believe that, well, then, they don’t deserve him, and they don’t deserve you.

I’m sending you so much hope and love that this school year will be different, for my sun, and for yours.

A poem, for the hard times and the wonderful times I know are ahead of us.

The Bronze Legacy (To a Brown Boy)

Effie Lee Newsome

’Tis a noble gift to be brown, all brown,
Like the strongest things that make
Up this earth,
Like the mountains grave and grand,
Even like the very land,
Even like the trunks of trees—
Even oaks, to be like these!
God builds his strength in bronze.

To be brown like thrush and lark!
Like the subtle wren so dark!
Nay, the king of beasts wears brown;
Eagles are of this same hue.
I thank God, then, I am brown.
Brown has mighty things to do.

 

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42 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Black Parents Whose Suns Have Been Pushed Out of Preschool

  1. Reblogged this on Joy Barnes-Johnson, Ph.D. and commented:
    To my Black Sun who will be 19 in only a few days…going back to school, now college, is now a joyful experience. I look back on taking you out of that colonizing environment mid year, in 2nd grade, with rejoicing. You are my Black Son and you shine.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I would love to connect with the author. I’m not sure how to find you. I’m a PhD student at UCLA. My children were suspended from preschool. I’m writing a dissertation on this topic. I’d love to connect with you. You can email me at tunette@ucla.edu.

    Thank you for this important piece. Sharing this everywhere!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Amazing blog post that I will share with my teacher colleagues. It really is an important topic to bring to light and to get educators to really think deeply about. I’m just wondering, is it intentional that you say “sun” instead of son?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. What a beautiful testament to the warriors we need to be for our black boys in this country. Kim, your words will imbue countless other advocates with the words they need and the courage it takes to let our kids be kids.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. The rigidity of preschools these days must come from the colleges providing early childhood certifications. When I was trained for early childhood/elementary work, it was made clear that there would be young-uns that would wander around or be loud or prefer another activity. The message from my teachers was to let the child be a child. I sense that college prep begins in preschool for many of these centers today!

    Anyhow…I think change will come from parents like you standing up to say “My kid doesn’t need fixing. The teachers are broken.”

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for sharing this story of pain and heartache. All I can say is “I see you. I believe you. I’m sorry.” And that many of us can take steps every day to be a part of necessary change. But that barely lessens the sorrow you’ve been through. Keep your heart tethered to your sun. And please keep writing!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you for sharing. I am from the Boston area and have experienced the same story. Same exact story. I tell everyone who will listen how racist charter schools are. It takes a lot of healing to move past this. Keep telling your story. It’s important.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you so, so, so much. This spoke to my heart. My son has been really struggling in preschool this summer and I knew that it was not him that it was their response to him. He’s not black, but he is a boy in a school entirely staffed by females. All of our boys deserve to have their exuberance embraced.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. There are many ways to put the safety of students first. How do we promote emotional and social safety to all of our students by showing them we are a community that embraces diversity and, consequently, them as well.

        Liked by 2 people

  9. Am I to understand that your definition of safety is to keep our black and brown suns out of your institution ? Are you communicating that by having our black and brown suns at your school they are making it unsafe? I think that you and people with the mindset that you have are unsafe for our suns.

    Liked by 4 people

  10. To William Gartside: when a head of school uses the language of “safety” as the “highest priority,” and yet nationwide Black and Brown children are disproportionately pushed out of school (including pre-K), I need to know what your definition of safety is, and whose safety you are prioritizing. “Safety” to me includes the well-being, emotional and academic–and yes, when you pull a child out of class you are removing them from time on learning–, of the child. “Safety” to me means the wholeness of a child’s soul. When 3 year olds leave school defeated and excluded, whose safety are you prioritizing? What do you even mean by safety? You seem to be more concerned about covering your institution rather than listening to Kim’s message here.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Couldn’t agree more! I cannot believe William Garfield would post a terse, unsympathetic comment after a mom poured her heart out so eloquently. Safety? You’re afraid of 3 year olds? I am a white woman who has worked with kids of color for over 35 years including 18-22 year olds with criminal backgrounds. If you love, respect, and honor them for who they are, there are no safety issues. How can you be the director and not know this? I know Eliot, who is a bright, inquisitive, and sweet child and he & his brilliant mom would both be assets to your school if you were able to see them for who they are and not thru your lens of conformity. Shame on you!

      Liked by 2 people

  11. William Gartside, children (every single child) should be your first priority. These are preschool children. I worked with three year olds for several years – they can be rambunctious, full of joy and wonder, careless, loving, all sorts of things. This particular three year old is all of this and more. He is a bright star who deserves to be loved and cared for by those entrusted with him

    Liked by 4 people

  12. @William Gartside, children are “safe” when they are loved and taught how to love others. Your school is, at its very core, creating an unsafe environment when it comes to the success and happiness of all children. You are fostering an environment that I would never send my child to and would never wish upon anyone else’s child.

    I am an administrator for an area PreK-12 school district, and the mere notion of turning away a child like this particular sun, who I know to be courteous, sweet, joyous, and conscientious, would never occur to us. We serve all children. ALL. CHILDREN. When our kids struggle, we look inward. We wonder what WE are doing that may be making it difficult for a child to succeed. We wonder in what ways WE are not responding to the needs of our kids. We reflect upon our own unconscious biases, our internalized narratives of race and child development, and we challenge ourselves to be better, to understand the child and his family, to help ourselves and that child learn and love together. Only in environments like these are children safe. You are perpetuating racial bias at your school. That is not safe – not for your school, not for your students, and not for our society.

    Liked by 4 people

  13. Speaking as a parent of two Black Suns and one Black Star, and also a teacher educator and former supervisor of teachers, I have several responses to this. First, of course safety is everyone’s first concern. But it is a teacher‘s job to teach children what the expectations are and to create an environment in which everyone can be successful. If a three-year-old in your perception presents a safety concern so grave that it cannot be addressed in the course of daily classroom practices, your school is likely facing some some serous problems indeed. First: a problem with your staff quality or training, or inadequate supervision of that staff. Second: the at-risk situation of having a head of school who doesn’t understand the racist impact of his public comments. And the third being that you apparently cannot spell.

    Liked by 5 people

  14. William Gartside, instead of hiding behind the term and concept of ‘safety’ how about taking responsibility for failing a 3 year old? As a former educator, it deeply saddens me to see your (progressive) institution failing a 3 year old. How about you take a step back and hold your institution and staff accountable and provide them with some (much needed) cultural competence and anti-racism professional development.

    Liked by 4 people

  15. Obviously your school doesn’t put children’s safety first if you can push out a curious child who was doing nothing but what children do. You turned his curiosity and enthusiasm into something negative that needed to be controlled and monitored because of his brown skin.

    Liked by 4 people

  16. William Gartside: Shame on you. That’s the oldest trick in the book for excluding people of color. Questioning a eloquent peice on motherhood, and exclusion, and finding the best path for your child despite obstacles here and there, with some stupid sentence about safety is so completely underwhelming. Quit scratching the litter over your poop. Do better.

    Liked by 5 people

  17. William Gartside I believe that safety for young children comes from a feeling of love and belonging. The new book Troublemakers by Carla Shalaby is critical reading for all educators. Watching this TED Talk from Erin Tebben, an early childhood mental health consultant, was important to my own learning about the impact on families. https://www.nationwidechildrens.org/research/resources-infrastructure/research-and-academic-events/discoveryx-2017/erin-tebben-kicked-out-of-preschool-how-early-childhood-expulsions-affect-families We must do better.

    Liked by 2 people

  18. William Gartside,

    Your response to this mother’s vulnerable, painful, and beautifully rendered reflection on her sun’s experience at your school is defensive, inadequate, and indicates that–while you may have read her post–you didn’t really make an effort to hear her. Her post should have pushed you toward self-reflection, critical examination of your practices, and plans for action to ensure your school is a welcoming place for all children. Instead, she received from you a stiff, bureaucratic reply that exhibits none of the humanity that she so generously displayed in her post. White educators (like you and me) do a grave disservice to our profession when we fail to truly listen to Black and Brown parents, and in turn, fail to provide the education their children deserve.

    Liked by 6 people

  19. William Gartside, we see this over and over and over again – the pushing out of Black and Brown students from preschool through forever. The examples are not just anecdotal or from a handful of mothers here and there, the pervasive pushing out of Black and Brown children is empirically documented – although the stories told through these blog responses should be enough for us as educators to recoil, rethink, and regroup as we dismantle racist practices. Similarly, the statistics about Families of Color choosing to home school because of these very issues (Mazama & Lundy, 2012) should stop us in our tracks. And of course, studies showing young Children of Color punished, suspended, and expelled while similar behaviors of their White peers are ignored or justified. See the 2016 Yale study in particular; the 2016 US Department of Education study; and the National Association for the Education of Young Children statements about the harm this does to children and families – and I would add, the harm it does to the children remaining in the school who will grow up seeing themselves as reflecting Peoples who count more, matter more, deserve more. Rather than looking to the child for fault, highly effective schools look within: How does my school, child care setting, and classroom ensure that every child who crosses the threshold knows that who they are matters today, tomorrow, and in the history of the world? How can I take an honest look at myself and at the educational environment in which I work to ask hard questions about what it means to be safe? How does “safety” encompass safeguarding my students’ right to equity, to be heard, and to be confident that their teachers appreciate and will care for them? How am I paying attention to the fact that vilifying children of any age is a key element in constructing and solidifying the school-to-prison pipeline (Alexander, 2012; Haddix, 2016; Howard, 2010; Kirkland, 2013; Morris, 2016; U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2014), taking away dignity and confidence, and denying the brilliance of children and families? When we take incredibly curious, beautiful, lively, brilliant three and four year olds and shut them down and push them out, we are ALL the worse for it. I am a teacher educator. Because of my responsibility to prepare new teachers and support experienced teachers, the buck stops with me. But it also stops with leaders in educational spaces as we all take responsibility for growing our understandings and leading for humanity as we cherish the children entrusted to our care.
    – Dr. Susi Long, Early Childhood Education, University of South Carolina

    Yale study: https://medicine.yale.edu/childstudy/zigler/publications/Preschool%20Implicit%20Bias%20Policy%20Brief_final_9_26_276766_5379_v1.pdf

    Liked by 3 people

  20. William Gartside: As a professional in the area of early childhood education, I expect you to know that childrens’ safety must be nourished, encouraged, developed, and defined. I expect you to know that children learn to feel safe and demonstrate safety from immersion in safe communities, from safe partnerships between schools, communities, and parents. Your school has proven to be an unsafe place both children and families. You are denying children-children of color, opportunities to grow and learn in a safe space. I suspect you know this. It’s time for you to face your bias.

    Liked by 1 person

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