…thoughts on the importance of voice, trust and reciprocity by Stacey James McAdoo…
The following was written as an OpEd piece and printed in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.
It has been the honor of my life to serve as the 2019 Arkansas Teacher of the Year (ATOY). I was born and raised in Little Rock, attended Little Rock public schools (all of which have been labeled as “failing schools” even under state control) and have spent my entire 17 year teaching career at the historic Little Rock Central High School, where 62 years ago, nine brave students stood up for education justice in the face of a segregationist government. The scars of the Little Rock Segregation Crisis still loom largely over my community.
I became an educator because I wanted to inspire and cultivate curiosity, creativity, and a life-long love of learning for every Little Rock student, regardless of which side of I-630 they live on. Because of my educational experience and deep roots in this community, I understand the importance of cultural competency and responsiveness, as well as the power of authentic relationships. As a Communications and college readiness teacher who works directly with talented students from all backgrounds, I bring that with me into the classroom. I’ve taught alongside incredibly gifted colleagues and dedicated administrators that show just how much progress we’ve made since I attended these same schools. Knowing the difference a public school with committed educators can make for a child is what gets me up on those early mornings and keeps me late to give extra time to those who need it. It’s hard work, but it is a labor of love and one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had.
Late last month, the State Board of Education (a body that I sit on as the ATOY) endorsed a plan to give some schools in Little Rock their own school board so that their communities can have a voice in the education of their children. That is the cornerstone of effective oversight in public schools across our country. It is what is right and what all parents and students deserve.
But the State’s plan also mandates communities in other parts of Little Rock remain under state control and “different leadership.” Governor Hutchinson has stated that the difference between the two sets of schools is that those that won’t be in the new district are in “academic distress.” The real difference is that the schools in those black and brown communities will continue to pay full property taxes yet will have no input in school governance. It is a return to separate and unequal.
Without a doubt, these schools need help. But help is not a plan that robs my community of any input on their students’ education. Help is one democratically elected board for the entire district with support from the community at large to provide the essential services and resources that will enable our students to thrive both inside and outside of the classroom.
In 1957, the Little Rock Nine desegregated Little Rock Central High—they did not integrate it. The word “integration” requires reciprocity – a two-way street. Similarly, in 2019, we cannot have collaboration without allowing diverse voices to not only be heard but to be a part of the process. Over the last few months, I’ve invited myself to numerous education roundtable discussions, summits, and meetings where the words “partnership,” “collaboration,” and “relationships,” are frequently invoked, but not carried out. We must mend the disconnect and dysfunctional relationship between decision-makers and the people in my Little Rock community.
As a classroom teacher, there is absolutely no way I can be effective without the trust and buy-in from my students. I don’t teach at the students; I teach with them. Their voice, experience and expertise are valued, welcomed and always acknowledged. The same should be said of student and teacher voice in education where our motto is “Not about us, without us.”
In my time as ATOY, I’ve visited some of those so called “failing schools” in Little Rock and talked with students. One incredibly bright student asked me to “please remind the Governor I’m not a failure.” That student wasn’t the only one to express that sentiment. Our current use of school evaluations has created a demoralizing system and is psychologically unhealthy for children. Data is important. But it is not the be-all, end-all. It is merely a residue of reality and should not be used to label, shame or divide – nor should it be weaponized or used punitively against the most vulnerable: schools and students from under-resourced homes and communities. Since I know this is pretty much a done deal, I’m left to wonder who will benefit financially from breaking up the district and eliminating the union that brings educator voice into decision making.
I’m not a politician, and I don’t pretend to be an expert on political matters. Even weighing in on this issue has me terrified. I am scared for my family, my students, friends and community. Arkansas educators no longer have due process rights after the legislature stripped them last year, and if my words offend the wrong person, I could be prevented from returning to the classroom when my ATOY tenure is over. But I know this community; I know my students and the families they’ve come from because I’ve spent my entire life here. I believe I would not be deserving of the honor I’ve been awarded, nor will I be able to look the students I’ve taught in the eye, if I don’t speak up.
Although I sit on the State Board of Education and have spent nearly two decades teaching at a school in our community that the world knows as a flashpoint for the ugly segregation fights of the past, no one ever asked me what I thought about this plan. Yet my life will be directly impacted. My students’ lives will be directly impacted. My community will be directly impacted. If someone had asked, I would have told them this plan is terrible for students and communities. It is wrong, and it is unjust.
*Stacey James McAdoo, the 2019 Arkansas Teacher of the Year (affectionately referred to as 2019ATOY), is a 17 year Oral Communication instructor, AVID Coordinator and sponsor of the spoken word collective called Writeous Poets from Little Rock, Arkansas. She teaches at the historic Little Rock Central High School where she is the living embodiment of her ATOY platform of using passion and poetry to close the opportunity gap.*