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As the parent of African-American kids, this is what I want from Memphis’s next superintendent

A student studies at Treadwell Elementary School. (Photo by Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat)
A Treadwell Elementary student.
Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat

I am both an educator and a mother of African-American children. Every morning, around 6 a.m., I sit with either my 8-year-old son or my 5-year-old daughter for their “Lesson with Mama.”

During our time together, we study mathematics, literacy, geography, world history, and most importantly, various topics explicitly related to Black identity. I do this for two reasons. First, they wake up before the crack of dawn every morning and command my attention one way or another. Second, having worked solely with historically disenfranchised children and communities, mostly African-American, I recognize that the U.S. education system is not naturally set up for all students to succeed.

It is with this understanding that I am now confronted with Memphis’s search for a new superintendent of schools. What do I, as a parent, really want from our next leader?

It is a difficult question to answer. I know that just like a child moves to a different teacher from year to year (and sometimes many times within one year), superintendents come and go. Is it even the smartest strategy to become extremely invested in one person? What I know I am definitely invested in are the people who live here in this district — the students, the families, the local educators.

At the same time, the superintendent will have a certain amount of power, and I know that a ton of good, as well as damage, can be done in a few years.

So while we need someone competent enough to take care of the basic needs like staffing, curriculum, training, support, and funding that all schools require, we also need someone with the ability to continue to dismantle the systems that interfere with the positive development of our most vulnerable youth.

Our education system — not to mention this country’s political system and economic system — keep certain communities in power while others continue to struggle. Having certain speech patterns, having English as one’s first language, having exposure to certain “ways of being,” conforming to gender norms, and many other aspects of one’s identity continue to be upheld as the ultimate goal, while dangerous narratives of what it means to be “African-American,” or “Black,” or “immigrant,” or “othered” in any way persist.

That’s what my efforts to improve the educational outcomes for my own children, and their peers, are all about — confronting this reality head-on. All students deserve excellent educational experiences, including those who do not fit neatly in a box labeled “My Perfect Student.”

The new superintendent will surely proclaim that under their leadership, our city will be one that provides an equally excellent education for all its children. However, this person should also have the perspective to appreciate that in declaring such a goal, they will be trying to do something that has not previously been done.

So I hope this person aspires to create and uphold a new system. I hope this person will recognize that there is indeed a school-to-prison pipeline and will institute appropriate changes in each school and classroom. I hope this person will fight with or against — whichever is needed — our state legislators to change the way our schools are funded. I hope this person will overhaul the gifted education program and make it better and more accessible to all communities. I hope this person can work with local and national teacher preparation programs to provide more training and support. I hope this person will have ensure the curriculum used in our schools is appropriate for all students.

I hope this person inspires teachers, leaders, and policymakers to believe that our children and families are indeed worthy of such a redesigned system.

Finally, I hope this person will conspire with whomever they need to in order to bring about real change. This person will need to confront any individuals or groups who do not deem such changes necessary — including people traditionally viewed as allies. Anything less is just business as usual. And Memphis parents don’t have any time left for that.

Keishana Barnes is a Tennessee native who lives in Memphis with her husband and three children. She serves at the PTO co-president at her children’s school, Treadwell Elementary School, and is pursuing a doctorate in educational psychology and research at the University of Memphis.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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