Back to school while Black: Quit stereotyping Black students, protect them instead

It's back-to-school season. Here are 21 ways school systems can uplift Black students.

Editor's note: School starts on Aug. 24 in the Des Moines school district, which serves around 32,000 students. About 20%, or 6,400 students, are Black according to data from the state's largest school district. Classes also resumed today in Johnston and West Des Moines. Happy Back-to-School Week.

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It’s back-to-school season. Black girls will rock braids, cornrows and faux locs, and Black boys will sport fresh fades, line designs and afros as classes resume across Iowa and the nation. But going back to school is about more than just teachers and textbooks, bus rides and backpacks and the latest hairstyle trends. What happens at school — and what doesn't happen there — has lasting effects.

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Black Iowa children will attend classes in school systems with questionable track records for educating them, where they may feel excluded and endure bias because of their skin color. When school bells ring and children are ushered into their classrooms, most Black students won't find many educators who look like them. And they're going back to school amid fallout from recent fights over critical race theory, book banning and a governorship that has sought public state money to pay for private school scholarships.

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High hopes follow Black students who are off to school this week with fresh faces, new kicks and natural hairstyles, but will they get what they need to be successful long term? Realistically, the following list doesn’t reflect most Black Iowa students’ lived experiences (or Black students elsewhere), but it is a wish list of sorts.

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It's 2022. Black children should attend schools where:

❤️Educators don’t make assumptions about their behavior, clothes, family structure, zip code, hairstyle, transportation, last name and test scores.

❤️Their ability to stand in a straight line, sit quietly and speak when spoken to isn't prized over their intellectual capabilities.

❤️Black people are represented accurately and equitably in portrayals of American history.

❤️Their names are pronounced correctly.

❤️Educators don’t subject them to racist lessons, such as slavery reenactments.

❤️Predominantly white institutions don’t leave them feeling ostracized, exposed, discriminated against and unwelcome.

❤️Their expressive way of communicating isn't intentionally misunderstood and micromanaged.

❤️Nobody touches their hair without their permission, their hairstyles aren’t considered violations of school dress codes or school hair policies, and their hair isn't mocked or appropriated.

❤️They walk or ride to school in neighborhoods that prioritize their safety.

❤️They never have to huddle in classrooms, terrified of gun violence.

❤️Everyone around them is invested in nurturing their uniqueness and the beauty present within them.

❤️Despite what educators think or data show, their future is spotless and has yet to be determined.

❤️Their emotional, mental and physical needs are met or exceeded.

❤️They are allowed to be children who are protected from grown folks’ business, problems and situations.

❤️Their innocence is preserved.

❤️Their education is a priority, and that message is reinforced to them everywhere they venture.

❤️They see volunteers, staff, faculty and administrators who look just like them, whose names sound like theirs, whose culture they share.

❤️They are given the benefit of the doubt.

❤️They're not overrepresented in school disciplinary data or subjected to police surveillance.

❤️They are taught how to think, but not what to think — especially about themselves.

❤️Their K-12 experience prepares them to defy expectations and blaze trails.

Here's hoping for the best school year possible — and that Black children are well-rested, nourished and ready to succeed as they head back to the classroom.

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