Colonizing the Black Natives: Reflections from a former NOLA Charter School Dean of Students
Are some charters’ practices new forms of colonial hegemony? When examining current discipline policies and aligned behavioral norms within charter school spaces, postcolonial theory is useful because of the striking similarities between problematic socialization practices and the educational regimes of the uncivilized masses in colonized nations. A number of postcolonial theorists focus on multiple ways that oppressors dominate their subjects and maintain power over them. For example, while working as the Dean of Students for a charter school in New Orleans, it took me some time to realize that I had been enforcing rules and policies that stymied creativity, culture and student voice. Though some of my main duties involved ensuring the safety and security of all students and adults at the school, investigating student behavioral incidents and establishing a calm and positive school culture, I felt as if I was doing the opposite.
My daily routine consisted of running around chasing young Black ladies to see if their nails were polished, or if they added a different color streak to their hair, or following young men to make sure that their hair wasn’t styled naturally as students were not able to wear their hair in uncombed afro styles. None of which had anything to do with teaching and learning, but administration was keen on making sure that before Black students entered the classroom that they looked “appropriate” for learning. As if students whose hair was natural or those whose parents could not afford a uniform tie could not achieve like others who possessed these items.
Most times, teachers and administrators scolded Black students for their appearance before they even spoke in morning. If a student did not have the right shoes, they would be placed in a holding area until their parent could be reached. Sometimes, if their parent could not be reached, those students remained in that area the entire day and given detention. I have absolutely no problem with enforcing school rules or policies, but when schools penalize and prevent Black students from learning and engaging in the classroom because their parents do not have the resources or simply cannot afford the uniforms, I take issue with that and I voiced my displeasure many times.
Each day, I could have up to 10 students in my office, affectionately dubbed the T.O.C., (time out center) by the end of the first period. Students continued to come throughout the day as teachers would simply not allow students to come back to their classroom. Most of the teachers guilty of this behavior were (TFA) Teach for America cohort members who were great hearted individuals, but could not control their classrooms. Most had no sense of cultural competence and frankly felt as if they did not need to know the kids to teach them. When a few teachers attempted to develop relationships with Black students and parents, it seemed disingenuous and painful. Many times, they avoided parent phone calls and conferences because they felt like a confrontation would occur. Students would enter my office daily and say “she put me out for nothing,” “I just got up to sharpen my pencil and she said go to Mr. Griffin, that lady don’t like me.” Teachers regularly abused the mark system we implemented at the school as well.
Students could be sent to my office after receiving 3 marks, but some teachers would focus on certain kids and as soon as they made a sound, they would give them a mark. If I had twenty students sent to me by lunch time, I would have to take those students to lunch duty with me, take them back upstairs afterwards and help teachers manage their classrooms at the same time. Each day, I would average 25-35 students in detention without any follow-up from teachers. Detention became a dumping ground, especially for students exhibiting disabilities (ADHD, ED, etc).
Most Black students with or exhibiting disabilities were pegged as outliers at the beginning of each school year; they were unfairly targeted by some teachers who had deficit attitudes sometimes before even meeting the students. Many times, these students were placed on a “special plan” where their parents had to pick them up early and work would be sent home with them to make it seem like they were learning something. However, the work was never turned in or even requested from teachers. If they were not sent home early, they were given detention. If their behavior was perceived as disruptive in detention, they were given some form of suspension. 98% of the students were Black, but if you happened to be a male and exhibited some form of disability, chances are that you were treated harsher, suspended numerous times and spent several hours a day outside of the learning environment. Many were even sent home for the year after taking the LEAP (Louisiana Educational Assessment Program) standardized tests and treated like throwaways.
When we tried to implement response to intervention (RTI) with students who either possessed or exhibited disabilities, they were immediately moved from tier 1 to tier 3 and some were subsequently placed in special education even though this did not fit the needs of the student. The idea to segregate certain students considered (outliers) was due to administrative convenience and because most teachers perceived them as being unruly, troubled or just plain too academically deficient to be in class with the other students. This allowed teachers to not be held accountable for teaching all kids and prevented Black students from receiving valuable instruction time.
Lastly, everything at the school was done in a militaristic/prison fashion. Students had to walk in lines everywhere they went, including to class and the cafeteria. The behavioral norms and expectations called for all students to stand in unison with their hands to their sides, facing forward, silent until given further instruction. The seemingly tightly coupled structure proved to be inefficient as students and teachers constantly bucked the system in search of breathing room. The systems and procedures seemingly did not care about the Black children and families they served. They were suffocating and meant to socialize students to think and act a certain way. In the beginning, we were teaching “structure,” but it evolved to resemble post-colonialism. Vasquez Heilig, Khalifa, and Tillman (2013) stated that “education was and still is used as a hegemonic form to monitor, sanction, and control civilized people.” Thus, postcolonial theory (Fanon, 1952, 1961; Memmi, 1965; Said, 1978) offers a critical framework through which urban educational policies and practices can be understood and critiqued (DeLeon, 2012; Shahjahan, 2011). They continue their analysis by stating that “at base, post-colonial theorists interrogate the relationship between the legitimized, conquering power and the vanquished subaltern, and ask questions about who defines subjectivities, such as knowledge, resistance, space, voice, or even thought.” Fanon (1961 ) argued, “Colonialism wants everything to come from it.” Essentially, colonizers delegitimize the knowledge, experience, and cultures of the colonized, and establish policy and practice that will always confirm the colonial status quo. In other words, it is important to note that postcolonial studies, though often thought of as relegated to a particular period, are actually also a reference to thoughts, practices, policies, and laws that impact marginalized Black bodies enrolled in charters during the current educational policy era.
Vasquez Heilig, J., Khalifa, M., & Tillman, L. (2013). Why have NCLB and high-stakes reforms failed?: Reframing the discourse with a post-colonial lens. In K. Lomotey and R. Milner (Eds.), Handbook of Urban Education. New York: Routledge. (See the post: A Quandary for School Leaders: Equity, High-stakes Testing and Accountability)
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