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Education Reform Isn’t a Game to Me
By Latasha Gandy
I’m an education “reformer” and proud of it.
It’s not an easy thing to say. The Internet is littered with articles about reform that point fingers, assign blame and call names. It’s sad, but I’ve come to expect attacks and hostility from people who must think public shaming will shut me down. They call me “naïve” and suggest I can’t think for myself. When they really want to shut me up they call me “corporate.”
I am a lot of things—frustrated, angry, fired up—but I’m far from “corporate.”
I organize activists on college campuses to fight for better schools, and the real motivators for me are the two precious girls who call me mom, including one who has struggled in school. Everyday I’m working to make sure the challenges I had in school don’t repeat themselves with my kids.
My Schools Failed Me
I grew up in poverty, as did generations of my family. At the same time, I was always motivated to do well in school and respect my teachers. College was always a goal, and with hard work I made it there.
Unfortunately, once admitted I realized just how unprepared I was. I needed remedial courses. How could that happen? I had met and surpassed the expectations of my high school education. Was the bar really set that low?
It was obvious that doing well in a poor school was illusory success. College shattered that illusion for me because it was an uphill struggle to keep up with the work.
I Want Better for My Children
Now it’s like history repeating itself as I again face educational struggles, this time as a mother.
When my oldest daughter was in second grade, her teacher told me she was behind in reading but offered this reassurance: “Don’t worry, we’re working on it.”
I stayed on top of the problem. I supported our teachers and assumed we were making progress. We weren’t. The years passed, and my daughter was not improving. Test scores revealed she was actually several years behind in reading. I was shocked and angry.
Taking a closer look at my daughter’s school revealed a lack of supportive resources that could have helped teachers work with parents; inadequate funding for additional tutoring; and obvious inequalities in curriculum offerings. I found other concerned parents and students who saw the same issues in their schools.
And there was a point that truly converted me from concerned mom to straight-up activist: I heard a community member say prison planners use fourth grade test scores to forecast the number of beds needed in the future. I didn’t know if that was true or not, but it absolutely terrified me.
Let’s Demand Justice in Education
As a non-traditional college student, I activated my fellow students around the education issue. I started a campus group that turned into a chapter of Students for Education Reform (SFER). In the process I developed a voice and a passion for organizing.
Doing this work full time has its hazards. Reform opponents are well-connected and well-organized. Lawmakers and community-based organizers tell me they are afraid to work with me because of the organization I represent. I get hostile messages online, I’ve had people attend my events with the intent to sabotage them, and it seems every day my integrity is questioned by local bloggers.
Still, it’s more than a job that keeps me fighting. I want all little girls like mine to have every opportunity to succeed. I want more parents like me to be on the front lines demanding justice in education. I want people who have overcome real inequities to have more voice in education policymaking.
Here’s what I know for sure: There will be no prison beds reserved for my little girls.
Two years ago I put both daughters in high-performing charter schools, because those schools are getting some of the best results for black children in Minnesota. More than that, these schools have incredible principals and teachers who work tirelessly to keep kids on track. I don’t want my girls to face the frustration of taking remedial classes in college. These schools have a longer school day and year that helped my kids catch up. And, these schools have a reputation for believing all children can succeed.
This year my oldest daughter is in 6th grade. This little girl who was once several years behind received her first report card with straight “A’s.” I can hardly express how amazing that felt.
All I ask is that instead of criticizing me for my advocacy, stand beside me so we can fight for more children to get the education my daughters get now. That’s what justice looks like.