Learning and Leading in Harlem: Expert Educators Share Insights on K-12 and Higher Education

For Harlem-based experts in educational leadership, imbuing local students of all ages with an understanding of the importance of living, learning, and thriving at the very center of Black life in America is one of the most important lessons of all. Teacher education, postmortems on the pandemic's effects, and curriculum development may look different in neighborhoods that are some of the richest in culture yet most under-resourced in New York City. The stark politicization of education nationally and extreme discourse around race, equity, and Black studies heightens the work to be done to mobilize communities and families in the service of education.

In this episode, President Vincent Boudreau of The City College of New York explores challenges and solutions with Dr. Sean L. Davenport, a longtime District 5 principal now serving as community superintendent of the Harlem School District, and Dr. Terri N. Watson of City College, a specialist in effective school leadership and the ingenuity of Black women in their roles as mothers, other mothers, teachers and school leaders.

Host: CCNY President Vincent Boudreau
Guests: Sean L. Davenport, Ed.D., Community Superintendent of the Harlem School District, NYC Public Schools. Terri N. Watson, Ph.D., CCNY Provost Fellow; Director of the Office for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging; Associate Professor of Educational Leadership, CCNY School of Education; also affiliated with the CUNY Graduate Center.

Recorded: April 10, 2023

Episode Transcript

Vincent Boudreau

Welcome to From City to the World. I'm your host, Vince Boudreau, the President of The City College of New York.

From City to the World is a show about how the work that we're doing at City College matters to people across the city and throughout the world. We'll discuss the practical application of our research in solving real world issues like poverty, homelessness, mental health challenges, affordable housing and disparities in healthcare and immigration. And today, we'll be talking about New York City's educational system. We will be discussing some of the challenges in both education and higher education, specifically in New York City, but also with a real focus on the Harlem School District.

According to npr.org, overall, enrollment in undergraduate and graduate programs nationwide has been trending downward since 2012. The COVID pandemic turbocharged the declines at the undergraduate level and now more than 1 million fewer students are in college. Obviously, what happens at the college level is reflective of what's happening at the public school level, high school and elementary school. And we will be talking about the relationship between the educational situation in our public schools and what goes on in college as well.

We'll discuss some of the reasons for the decline and the possible solutions with Superintendent Sean Davenport. He's the Community Superintendent in what used to be called District 5 in New York City's Department of Education, and is now known as the Harlem School District. Then Dr. Terri Watson, who is a veteran of New York City Public School as a teacher and is now an Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at CCNY and CUNY's Graduate Center, she will join the conversation.

So we'll start with Superintendent Davenport and let's start with a look at New York City's public school system and discuss the challenges and some possible solutions with Dr. Davenport.

So first, let me tell you a little bit about him. He began his career as a high school English teacher in the Bronx in New York City. He went on to be the Founding Principal of the Thurgood Marshall Academy's K5 school in Harlem. He then moved on to be the Principal at Thurgood Marshall's Academy's 6th to 12th grade school. Under Dr. Davenport's leadership, Thurgood Marshall Academy graduated their first pipeline K12 class in June of 2018. Dr. Davenport later served as the Leadership Development Coach for the New York City Department of Education.

He received his bachelor of science degree and a master of arts degree from Norfolk State University in Norfolk, Virginia. He received a master's degree in education from Fordham University and a doctorate and education degree in executive leadership from St. John Fisher College. Dr. Davenport is currently Community Superintendent for the Harlem School District, what used to be known as District 5.

Dr. Davenport, welcome to From City to the World. We're really glad to have you.

Sean Davenport

Oh, thanks for having me.

Vincent Boudreau

So let me start by asking you to take a few moments to lay out your vision for the district. You've had years of experience in area schools, you spent a significant time developing the talent of school leadership in your last position. So what have those experiences produced for you in terms of a vision for Harlem School?

Sean Davenport

That's a great question. I think the one thing that it has shown me is that the system is inequitable, and when you are brought up in a particular community for so long educationally in my career, you really don't see the disparities because you're really just focused on what you're working with. And so I think serving in several positions, one as a supervisor superintendent for a moment, and then as a leadership development coach, I was able to visit so many different schools across New York City that I began to realize the advantages and the disadvantages that our students face here in Harlem, but most importantly the disadvantages.

And one of the things I wish I could have been able to do as a principal was to get out more and to be able to take my staff out more to see things happening outside of the community. Although there's great things happening within, sometimes you need a different perspective, and I did not take advantage of those different perspectives. As a principal, we were a showcase school and I would have principals from all over come and visit me, but I never really had that opportunity as often to go visit other schools and other situations.

And so coming back to the district, a district where I led two schools, I felt that one of the biggest problems that I had to deal with as a school leader was the apathy of our families. And what I mean by that is it was just, too often, just doing enough was good enough, and wanting to take our students to another level sometimes became more of a detriment or a problem for me than just to actually just let them just skate by and or do just enough to get by.

And so that became the challenge, that became the fight. How do I motivate? How do I inspire? How do I instill? And it was a battle that, no matter how hard I was fighting it, it just seemed like we weren't making enough traction with it, and to see it then now take place district-wide because I never had that lens before. I was only concerned about mine. And then now to see it as a district problem, coming back to the district as a superintendent, I realized that some of the things that we needed to do was, one, get back to the basics, and that's reading and writing and inspiring our kids, and then giving them something to aspire to be and zeroing in on those aspirations.

But sometimes, I'm more in charge of principals and so therefore changing the mindset of principals, hopefully, to see what the possibilities that our kids can become. They know it, but then they actually just deal with it and deal with the low test scores and the other problems that we face with attendance and all these other avenues that are just holding our kids back is the challenge that we're facing now as a community.

Vincent Boudreau

I'm going to get back to you talked a little bit about families and you talked a little bit about motivating principles and those are things I want to come back to, but you started by talking about inequities, the school system is inequitable. Could you unpack that a little bit, give us some examples of what you see across your district, particularly in relationship to other spaces in the New York City school system?

Sean Davenport

Well, I think for one, the Fair Student Funding is a thing where they really give the the school financial support or finances the school based on student enrollment, the populations. So if you have a certain amount of special education students, that factors in to how much extra support you get or funding you get based on certain subgroups, which is okay. But Fair Student funding to me is if you have school districts who are underperforming, it would be to give them the necessary resources to be successful, not so much based on Fair Student Funding on how many students are in the school or the type of subgroups who are in the school. So that's one area that I think the City, it used to be that way, but the City needs to get back to.

And the other inequity is that financially, parents in other communities are just able to do more to change the playing field, so therefore it no longer is level based on possibly the area codes. So if I'm going to another district that's a little more wealthier, students have more advantages and opportunities because the PTAs do things differently, they're able to fundraise better, they have more access to different organizations and corporations, and so their students are actually getting more. And that's not a bad thing. That's because they're able to garner that support, but then that becomes that inequity for some of the students who aren't in positions to do that. And that's where I think the DOE has to probably step it up a little bit and say, "Fair Student Funding really isn't that fair in certain communities and neighborhoods."

Vincent Boudreau

Yeah. And apart from the ability of families to contribute financially or to participate in fundraising, I know that when Chancellor Banks was on campus a little while ago, you and I were with him in a larger meeting, one of the things he asked was to figure out how to mobilize families in support of education. And you talked about the kind of built-in financial inequities, but there's a lot of other things that communities and families can do to make sure that education is working for students. What's your best thinking around how and for what purposes communities and families need to be mobilized in the service of education?

Sean Davenport

I think we all need to be part of the solution and bringing our parents in to have these conversations about where our students really are and where they need to go, I think we have to do a better job of that, and especially in this community here. Accountability, not so much for parents, but for the schools to say, "I'm accountable for reaching out to these parents to bring them in to have these conversations." And then at a district level, I have to do a better job of ensuring that when the parents are in, that they are at a level playing field where they understand what's being asked of them and how I can best support them in supporting their students.

And so that's one of the larger issues is that our parents feel welcome, but at the same time, feeling welcome and being able to communicate the disadvantages that your child may be having at home, it's another conversation. How do they support their child when their child isn't able to succeed in the classroom? We need to start figuring out those ways.

And Chancellor Banks is doing, I think, a phenomenal job of trying to start that conversation and get us looking at finding ways to support parents and doing this work. And I've been very intentional of trying to find the right people in the district, even coming to the District Office to do this parent work so that when we're able to have these conversations with parents, we can provide them with a blueprint. When you go into schools, this is the curriculum, these are the questions you need to have for teachers around the curriculum. You need to have the curriculum people provide resources to support parents when the students are home and helping them do homework.

There are so many things, like when I have several degrees and when my child was in high school, I couldn't help them with certain homework assignments. So I know if you don't have the same background as I have, it must be even more difficult. And so we need to be able to put our parents in positions where they can find levels of support so that they can feel like they're being beneficial in helping their students succeed.

Vincent Boudreau

You know, I guess we could probably do a whole hour on this next question, and you probably have been asked it a million times, but I'm curious. I know at the college level, we absolutely have seen educational learning slow down a bit because of remote learning, the pandemic, all the other trauma that went along with this nightmare we've been living for the last couple of years. What do you see in the schools and what efforts are families and students and teachers making to recapture some of the, I don't want to call it necessarily learning loss, but the slowdown in learning that probably happened, and probably happened to a greater extent in communities that are under-resourced than in other communities? What do you see as the legacy of the pandemic in the classroom these days?

Sean Davenport

I see it a couple ways. The biggest legacy that I'm seeing it's leaving is first recognizing that our students were already underperforming before COVID. We have to address this problem differently.

One of the things that I noticed when I had the opportunity to be at Central, I realized that our teachers really aren't prepared for a shift. Our younger teachers were more savvy with technology than maybe the older teachers, but they didn't have the pedagogical skills that the older teachers had, and so there was still a gap there. And whereas the older teachers had the pedagogical skills, they didn't have the technology skills, so that created another gap. In some schools, it worked very well. In other schools, they struggled. I think it really depends on the capacity.

And I think trying to come up with ways now to support teacher learning so that they can better support where students are in the technology world because kids today could do so much more with technology, sometimes they should use that superpower for good, but we need to know how to channel it for good. We need to know how to bring that expertise that they have to the classroom and support it in the classroom.

We get so worried about the cell phones because of the things that kids do with cell phones, other than looking up material. They're sending out text messages and things like that. We oftentimes say, "Well, no cell phones beyond this point," therefore now we have another communication gap. We've now stifled an opportunity for them to advance their learning. And I'm guilty, I was guilty of that. So let me say, I was one of the main ones that said, "All these phones are a problem," but they could have been a solution. We could have figured ways how to include their knowledge of using apps on the phone to support their learning in classrooms.

But what, as an adult, teachers don't actually recognize or realize becomes a fear. And if it's a fear for us, then we won't want to engage in it because we don't know how to do it ourselves. And so it could have been an opportunity for students teaching us something while we teach them something.

And this technology piece, what we learned through this pandemic was that we could do so much with it. However, when we came back from the pandemic, we reverted back to our own best practices of what we knew how to do best in a classroom. And a lot of that wasn't continuing the use of technology.

But for kids, we also learned that for a lot of our students, especially in this community, as good as distant or remote learning could be, our kids need to be in the classroom. Our kids need to be with an adult that is one, caring, that can show compassion, and one that they can go to personally as opposed to being online with to talk about their problems because they were suffering so much through mental illnesses and with other things going on in their families that being able to come to school and being with people for that extra unconditional love was crucial for a lot of our students. And so that was also a contributing factor of the loss was that they were lost because they weren't in the school building, not so much for academics, but for all the other services that the school provides for children.

And so we recognize that one, we need more guidance counselors. Two, we need more social workers. There's so many other personnel that we need in the schools to support all of our students. It's a travesty that a teacher in a classroom has a one to 30 or one to 32 ratio where guidance counselors have one to 250.

Vincent Boudreau

I mean, I want to ask two things about teachers and school administrators. And the first is, I can't tell you how many times during the pandemic I heard people say, I may have said it myself, "We'll never go back to where we were before the pandemic," that the embrace of technology, we've learned so much about what we can do better. And you seem to suggest that people were going back to traditional ways of teaching. And I wonder if you've thought about how, as a district, you might recapture that spirit of exploration with technology.

And then the second question is a little bit simpler. How are your school teachers and administrators doing? I mean, the pandemic was stressful on everybody, but man, it seemed like teachers trying to figure out how to hold the class together and hold their personal lives together and figure out the balance between teaching students and mitigating risk in their own personal lives, that just felt unmanageable sometimes when I'd read the stories. And so I want to know how are people doing these days?

Sean Davenport

I'm sorry for that bell. You know I'm in a school building.

The teachers, in most cases, are doing the best they can. And one of the things about being a teacher in general, most importantly here in New York City, is that you have to be so much to so many and you're only one person. And we ask them to do so many things and it would be just wonderful if we could just ask them to just concentrate on teaching. But they are concentrating on so many other areas with the whole child and trying to educate the whole child. Oftentimes, they're being a social worker. Oftentimes, they're being a psychologist. They're doing so many different things with all of their students, and it's unfair to them, unfair to the profession of what we're asking of them, and then we want to hold them accountable for kids not succeeding.

So one of the things about when I say that we go back to what we knew was that I wouldn't say that we were all that successful remotely. We were introduced to more things remotely. Like I said, we were bringing in different apps into the classroom while we were on Zoom and Google Class and all those type of things that allowed us to collaborate and communicate differently, but it also took away the human aspect as well. And so sometimes when we came back, I would go in some schools and they still weren't meeting in person. They'd be in the same building meeting on Zoom. I'm like, "But you're in the same building. Can you just come to the cafeteria and have a staff meeting?" And, "Oh, well this works for us." And so you started taking away elements that made you great.

And one of the biggest things about the technology piece that our teachers really need is they actually need training in it. It's one thing to give you a laptop and say, "When school is out, you go to your laptop and we want you to do this lesson," but then how do you engage a student, a seven-year-old, a 10-year-old that's at home, that has distractions, that can do so many other things while you're trying to teach, and then they're in their bedroom or a sibling needs to get on the computer, the WiFi's not strong. There's so many other factors that go along with this whole process that I think, for the average teacher practice, when you come back, I know this works. Now that I have you back face to face, this works. Whereas the technology could be used to enhance. So for instance, you did have students who did quite well because they were so self-sufficient, they're like, "Just tell me what I need to get done. I can get it done."

And so when we don't have enough teachers to support student learning in advanced classes, those students could go on and take a calculus class online. They could go and do other things online and have minimal problems, but could get support from those teachers who may know those certain content areas. They're self-learners though. They're self-starters. And we're not taking advantage of that across the system, of setting them up for success that way.

And that's something that I would look to do, I'm looking to do moving forward. How do we set up our kids for success with the technology that we've learned about from online classes and things like that where our kids could continue to learn and go beyond the credits that we can offer them inside the classroom during the day that they could continue that learning outside of that classroom experience? And that's the shift that I'm trying to make sure that what we go into.

Vincent Boudreau

Yeah, what an important shift that would be. I'm going to change gears just a little bit here. I referenced at the start of the show that change of name from District 5 to the Harlem School District. Can you talk a little bit about what that signifies for you, why that name change might resonate, and how that gets worked into the operation of the school? And what you think students and teachers would get from going to the school in the Harlem School District as opposed to District 5?

Sean Davenport

Well, like the Chancellor that changed the Department of Education to the New York City Public Schools. And I said then, I think, why should the community be considered a number?

We're in Harlem and Harlem's one of the greatest communities in the world. City College is in Harlem. Harlem's one of the greatest communities of learners, educators. And so the people who lived in this community is unprecedented. And one is getting our students to understand the importance and historical context of what it means to be in Harlem.

And so when you put a number there, a District 5, and District 5 systemically has been a low-performing district historically, and I think it's systemic in the processes that we go through, but historically, we've been a low-performing district. I don't want that five to be synonymous with failure. So when you talk about Harlem, you have to think about the people, you have to think about the community, you have to think about the children.

And so that's the context I want out of this. When we say, "The Harlem School District," we're talking about the young men and women who live in this community who we have to pay attention to. We can't just brush them off as a number. "Oh, that's just District 5." And so when I say, "The Harlem School District," I want you thinking about the people more so than the number.

Vincent Boudreau

Do teachers who maybe don't live in the district coming into the Harlem School District, do they get that? I got to say, the people that live in Harlem, they're so proud of their community, of their neighborhood. And I wonder if... I assume a lot of your teachers aren't necessarily Harlem residents. Does it resonate that they're in a special place in teaching students?

Sean Davenport

I don't know. From my experiences as a principal, a lot of our teachers know. So for me, it was about getting that context to them, to our kids. So if I can make you proud of where these kids come from, then you can make them proud of where they come from as well. And so you're absolutely right.

And we came up with our MECCA framework, and so my vision was reimagining the Renaissance when I took over. I said, "I want to reimagine the Renaissance. I want our kids to know how great they are. I want them to know the great community come from." And our framework was MECCA, and it's for mindfulness excellence, capacity building, collaboration, and action. And within those frameworks is what we want to drive across with capacity building, district-wide progress monitoring, cohort-based professional development, non-negotiables and best practices across, and then mindfulness. It's addressing that particular area, which is crucial for not just the student but for the teachers and parents.

And so that's the framework we're looking at to move our agenda and support our students. We understand the work begins with the principals first acknowledging it, and then making sure it resonates with the staff. And we see that happening in our schools. You can walk through our schools now and you see the Mecca signs up and you see the principals talking about the frameworks and teachers are understanding it. But I know we didn't get into this place overnight and it's going to take time, but it's something that we can point to say, "This is the work we're trying to get to." And I think that's a great start for us coming into the year.

Vincent Boudreau

It's been a real pleasure talking to you. This is going to have to be my last question, but it's something I can't let you go without asking.

In other parts of the country, the educational curricula is under fire, particularly when we try to teach about the Civil Rights Movement or the history of people of color, or even questions of gender. You don't have that same kind of pressure in Harlem. In fact, what is framed sometimes in a place like Florida as an attack on the psyche of white children is actually the raw materials that we would use here to build the self-confidence, the sense of place in history and destiny that our young people have in New York City.

Do you see a role for you or the Harlem School District or New York in engaging with this battle over how we treat race and the history of people of color and other issues that are contested in the educational environment and other parts of the country? What do you think about that?

Sean Davenport

I actually think we should be at the forefront on this topic. And I opened an elementary school based on the premise of teaching the kids who they are, where they come from. And so we got a curriculum that was deeply rooted in Harlem and it was based through literacy, through the arts, and it was through that genre where they were able to learn about the Harlem greats and not just in literacy, but in the arts, and marry the two together and see how far we've come and where we can still need to go.

We're also piloting the Black Studies curriculum in every school in the district. And so we have some pushback on certain things, but with pushback, I push back, and I'm saying that this history belongs to all of us. And when I was at the lower school, I used to tell my teachers, "If we teach George Washington, we need to teach Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver." We need to teach everybody everything so that a student can find representation in themselves through learning. And if we're holding them back from finding representation in themselves, then we are cheating them out of a learning opportunity. So we're not even teaching them the true history of this country. Regardless of good, bad, or indifferent, they need to walk away and be able to make up their minds and say, "I need to go in this direction because I was able to learn about X, Y, Z."

And I think keeping the lines of communication open around the learning processes for all of our students is what's going to be critical for our society moving forward.

Vincent Boudreau

All right, and we are now going to be joined in our conversation by Dr. Terri N. Watson. She is the inaugural 2022-2024 Provost Fellow at CCNY and the Founding Director of the College's Office for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging. Her scholarship examines effective school leadership and the ingenuity of Black women in their roles as mothers, other mothers, teachers and school leaders. She employs critical race theory and Black feminist theories as methodological frameworks for that work.

She's the author of over two dozen articles, book chapters, case studies and policy briefs, and has served as an editor for a special issue of the Journal of Educational Administration and History that's titled, "A Seat at the Table: Examining the Impact, Ingenuity, and Leadership Practices of Black Women and Girls in PK-20 Context."

Dr. Watson earned a bachelor's degree from St. John's University. She earned a master's degree from Teachers College, Columbia University, and a doctoral degree in educational leadership from Florida Atlantic University. She is currently Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at CCNY and also at CUNY's Graduate Center.

Dr. Watson, welcome to From City to the World.

Terri Watson

Thank you, President Boudreau. It's a pleasure to be here.

Vincent Boudreau

It's really great to have you here. So I'm going to start with an easy one since you do this all the time. We just ended with Dr. Davenport talking about critical race theory. I wonder if you could, since you use it as a methodological framework, what's the most misrepresented aspect of critical race theory and how would you frame it both to people who are excited to pursue this kind of perspective, but maybe also for those who are fearful that it might be a threat to them in some way?

Terri Watson

Okay, well first off, I guess the first misperception is that it's racist and racism is a power. It's a power over as opposed to a power with it or through. And what critical race theory does quite simply is that it centers the reality of not only race, which is a social construct, but racism, meaning it has us look at the ways in which race affects our lives. And if you're a non-white person, that reality is palpable, meaning that there are experiences that you've lived through or you've had just because of the color of your skin. And critical race theory acknowledges how that happens and what's the impact on a person and know that it comes from the legal field, from the legal scholarship of Derek Bell.

And what he did simply was just looked at, let's say an incident happens and you have two children and you notice that there's a disparity in the discipline, whatever was meted out as an act of "justice," and you noticed that the Black child received a different penalty than the white child. So you have to ask yourself, if they did the same thing, what makes it different? Simply the color of his or her skin. And critical race theory demands that we look at the impact of race and racism based on Black America in particular, our history here in the Americas, and it was founded on race being number one, our enslavement, and if you look at jurisprudence, meaning how laws and policies are enacted, they most often have a disparate impact on Black people in particular.

Vincent Boudreau

We're going to get around in a little bit to this issue of disparate treatment of children in the classroom based on their race, but before we get to that, I wanted also to talk about another element of your scholarship. You've placed significant focus on the contribution of Black women to education. And in doing that, you look at their multiple roles, mothers, other mothers, in and out of schools, and we heard earlier about Superintendent Davenport and Chancellor Bank's efforts to mobilize the community in support of education, community and family.

So in your scholarship, what role do you see women specifically having played in that project, particularly roles that maybe don't get significant or sufficient attention?

Terri Watson

For me, in my centering of Black women in particular, knowing that many of the work we do is on behalf of our children or other people's children, and oftentimes, those contributions that we make are not acknowledged, and if they are acknowledged, they're seen as a negative paradigm.

Case in point, looking at the Moynihan Report, looking at the Coleman Report. Both these reports were fundamental documents that looked at education and looked at the role of the Black family or Black women in particular, and it painted us in ways in which it didn't affirm us as people, meaning it didn't take into account the fact that many Black women lead households, that many Black women are deeply involved, not only in their children's upbringing, but in the community's children in terms of caretaking and love and guidance and support. Those things that we provide are often demonized or thought not to be enough, but it has sustained us since our arrival in the Americas, this mother work, the work that women perform.

And for Black women, this work is particularly a heavy lift, if you will, because Black life is under a constant state of attack. And then the very first people that folks call when there's danger, you call for your mother, you call for help because historically, Black women have always been at the forefront of progress and racial uplift and we don't acknowledge that enough, particularly in the schoolhouse. And my work makes sure that we shine a needed light not only on Black women, but how can we learn, and more importantly, how can we build with Black women to improve not just Black lives but all lives?

Vincent Boudreau

You, on the same sort of thread, you recently held an event here at the College and Superintendent Davenport was a panelist where you honored Dr. Babette Edwards for her role in education. And I wonder if you could tell us a little bit about her life, specifically, what drew your attention to her, and how that lines up with your broader scholarship?

Terri Watson

Yeah, thank you for that question, and thank you Dr. Davenport for your presence, scholarship, and thoughts. It was wonderful.

So I actually met Babette Edwards initially at the Archives. So I was doing research on Harlem's public schools, and I wondered, taking into account with the Coleman Report and the Moynihan Report, these not founding documents, but I'll say guiding documents that we looked at Black America, particularly in urban spaces like Harlem. And I wondered, first I knew it wasn't true because my mother was a single mother and there's three of us, and she made sure we went to school each day. So I knew that a lot of what the data said wasn't true.

And I went to the Schomburg to see who was actually doing the work in Harlem schools, and I came across Babette Edwards, and she was a central figure in the community control movement in the 1970s. And there's a school in Harlem, IS201, it's called "The Windowless School." And she boycotted, she protested, she literally chained herself to the door saying that this is not worthy of our children. How can we have a school in Harlem with no windows? And when she pushed back on the commissioners and the policymakers, they said that we'll add windows when you prove yourself or when we get white children, but in the meantime, this is the best we can do. And she said no.

So I knew that, historically, Black women have always advocated for Black children and for me, Babette Edwards, the fact that not only is she still alive, but I wanted to make sure that we gave her her flowers. And I simply say, "Thank you."

So last week's event that we hosted, and thank you for making that happen, was simply honoring the work she has consistently done for the last literally 70 years on behalf of Harlem's children. And the interesting thing is that it was never really about her children because her own children actually went to private school. But a neighbor went to her and told her about what happened in school with their child and their child didn't have books, and how the teacher spoke to her when she came in concerned, and Babette, the very next day, she went back to school with that parent to advocate on behalf of that child and parent.

And that kind of work that Black women do, that Babette has done, we've always done that. But Babette, she had a voice. She earned a PhD looking at Harlem schools, and she really galvanized the community to really protest in real and tangible ways. And so much so that IS201 was actually a community school for the first few years, meaning that the community had a voice and it went left when the district decided that they didn't want parents having that much say. But the point that hit home to me was that someone was advocating for us and about our wellbeing, that they were concerned, and this Black woman, she led that charge and I just wanted to acknowledge her. So, that's what that was about last week.

Vincent Boudreau

Yeah. It just seems like there are these women who decide that every child is their child.

Terri Watson


Vincent Boudreau

And I think a little bit about Jackie Rowe-Adams, who founded Harlem Mothers SAVE, and lost her two children to gun violence and then decided that that was it. She was now going to be everybody's mother and galvanized the community against gun violence, and it sounds like Dr. Edwards had that same streak inside her.

Do you see this as a specific attribute of women of color or is it just that you happen to be looking for that in women of color?

Terri Watson

Well, it's in women in general because primarily women mother, we give birth to children so it's innate to be concerned with their wellbeing. But because of the impact of racism, Black women historically have to mother differently because we know that we're sending our children out into a world that will not see their humanity, that will not value them as young people, as learners and thinkers. So we have to equip them to advocate for themselves, to speak truth to power. And then when they're unable to do so, we have to speak on their behalf.

And I think for Black women in particular, that's a very real concern because of the attack on Black people by and large, but children are our most vulnerable. So we know when we send them to schools, unfortunately, schools are the very first place where most children experience racism firsthand and that's why our advocacy there must be not only seen, but felt and known, and so that we can take care of our children the best way we can, even when we're not there. We kind of set a framework and that's what that mother work is.

Vincent Boudreau

Well, so earlier when we were talking about the effort to mobilize families and communities, you've just brought that to a whole different level where you say you've got to actually not just motivate children and make sure they're doing their homework, but equip them for the bad things they're going to encounter, dangers, racism, disparities, and make sure that they figure out a way through all of that.

Terri Watson

Yeah, definitely. I remember my mother talking with my brother about, if you're ever questioned by the police, what do you have to do? You have to give them ID, you have to answer their questions, but they can't touch you. They have to give you a reason for searching your person. And so it's unfortunate that Black mothers have to give their sons and even their daughters these scripts.

And I know for me as a mother, I remember talking to teachers about how I wanted them to treat my daughter, how I wanted them to respect her and listen to her and know that she's kind of quiet. So what you see as disobedience, she's shy, she's bashful, and she doesn't always advocate for herself. So I had to make clear that she does have a mother who cares deeply about her. Unfortunately, I had to do that, but the stereotypes of Black girls are notorious in the schoolhouse in a very negative way.

Vincent Boudreau

Oh no, it's right. I want to get back now, Dr. Watson, to this thing you mentioned just in passing, the disparities in the way that Black girls are treated on a disciplinary front, and we're seeing more and more of the statistics and the stories of who gets suspended and who gets reprimanded and how does that all play out? Could you just unpack that research a little bit for me and for our listeners, what you've seen when you studied this?

Terri Watson

Okay. So in real time, know that number one, Black girls are suspended more and more punitively, like it's more harshly, than all other girls in every state in the nation. And then most boys, they come second only to Black boys. So we see Black girls being disciplined for things that, let's say, if it was a white boy and say speaking out, we'd say that he was a leader, that he was strong and determined. But for a Black girl, she's disobedient and disrespectful and penalized for the very same behaviors that we count as or consider attributes in other children. Black girls are demonized. And a big part of it is stereotypes. It's the remnants of slavery.

I had this one girl tell me this "ratchet" label. You can assume that every Black girl is ratchet, meaning behave in ways that aren't becoming of a young person or that they are, if not ratchet, then they're mammified, meaning we expect them to be caretakers when they need care and love themselves. A study in 2020 said that as early as five years old, Black girls are considered to be more older than other girls, so they aren't given the same consideration of children just being children. They're held to higher standards and they're penalized for even having a bad day. Think about Black girls being arrested. I read once about this five-year-old having a tantrum, and she was arrested. She was literally handcuffed and placed in a police car for having a tantrum. But I think at five, that's appropriate.

Vincent Boudreau

I mean, a tantrum is, yeah, absolutely.

Terri Watson

Especially age-appropriate behaviors, Black girls aren't allowed to behave in ways that children behave, which is unfortunate because Black girls are children.

Vincent Boudreau

I mean, you said this happens in every state in the union.

Terri Watson


Vincent Boudreau

Are there patterns? Does it happen more frequently in just, let's say, in the American South? Does it matter? Does the race of the teacher matter or is it so pervasive that we see it in all educational settings?

Terri Watson

Well, unfortunately, the answer is yes on both fronts. So for one, the teaching field overwhelmingly is filled with primarily white women. I think 80% of the teaching force are white women. And many of these white women are not from urban spaces or they have little to no experience with Black people by and large, especially Black children, so there's a racial disconnect. And part of that is in terms of cultural. So things you see as defiance, let's say talking back or self-advocacy, they consider it sass or disrespect, or even making eye contact. So, there are certain cultural norms that Black girls embody that many white women teachers are not familiar with.

And unfortunately, let's say even if there's a racial match, meaning both your teacher and student are Black, it's been found that Black teachers even hold Black girls to a different standard, meaning they expect more. Like, "You're five, you should know better." But no, you're five and you shouldn't know better. You're figuring it all out. You're learning how to read, you're coming to school, you're developing a routine. But we adultify Black girls overwhelmingly across the board. And again, part of it is the racial disconnect between the teacher and the student.

But again, anti-Blackness is pervasive, even for Black teachers who themselves were once Black children themselves, they hold Black children to a higher standard and they think they should know better, or they have these stereotypes about acting in certain ways in the schoolhouse, and they use this whiteness, if you will. "You should act like this," and whatever that is not becoming to who they are, so we give them these unrealistic standards that they can never live up to.

Vincent Boudreau

Right. I don't want to lose the thread of the fact that your position at City College is your teaching as a professor of educational leadership. And so you have all this data and the trends are clear. How do you talk to teachers and principals about that? And I mean, you're actually asking people to be probably a little bit more self-reflective than they might normally be. And how does that work out? And what sort of techniques or approaches to the question seem to be effective in getting people to change their behavior?

Terri Watson

Well, I think the key thing I think is that reflection piece. And I know in dealing with not only K to 12, but even with our colleagues, faculty, most recently we engaged in what's called reality pedagogy, meaning I asked them to consider the world as we know it in real life, take into account the Black Lives Movement, this Trumpian era that we find ourselves in. And how do you think our students are? Who do you think they are in this day and age? What is it like to be a Black girl or a Black boy or Hispanic, or to be undocumented or to be considered "illegal" when we know no one is illegal and there's a attack on Black lives?

So we ask them to look at reality, and then to actually engage with young people, have conversations explaining what their day is like and learning with and from one another. And so what I do with teachers, again, and professors alike is I ask them to look at the world in a real way, not this idealized way because I think too often, we know what schools should do, but we know what happens in reality. So we have to account for that reality and make sure that we sure-up young people, that we affirm them, that we see them, that we celebrate them, and that we care for them, and that we say it out loud that they matter and they're important. And then here's what we're going to do together to build this community.

And for me, it's about this ethos of a beloved community, a place where we're affirmed, that we're acknowledged, and we get to be our righteous selves. And we can only do that if we allow others to be themselves. So it's kind of like this Paulo Freirian kind of lens, meaning the oppressed can only free the oppressor, meaning we have to teach people who we are, but also learn who they are and build community. And so we just do that in real and tangible ways, and part of that is just unpacking our cultural nap sack.

Vincent Boudreau

So you've brought me beautifully to my last question, which is I want to ask you the same question I asked Superintendent Davenport, which is, we work most closely with young people that are in what a lot of people would call the cultural capital of Black America, Harlem. And so we have the advantage of children going to school surrounded by Black and brown kids, surrounded by businesses, Black-owned businesses, surrounded by all kinds of indications of pride in self. How does that factor in as a resource in reversing some of the things that you've identified that are so disturbing in the way children are treated in school sometimes?

Terri Watson

Well, for me, and know that I lived in Florida for a number of years, and when I came back to Harlem and City College in particular, I was very intentional, meaning I wanted to be in a space in Harlem, in the Mecca, with Black and brown people learning with us, learning about us, and affirming young people. So I think the fact that literally we are in Harlem, the classroom is Harlem. We can literally open our doors and find ways to engage.

Case in point, last week with Babette Edwards, bringing the community to us. The great part about last week was that 90% of the people who were at that event were not faculty or staff. They were actually community members coming in to learn about Babette Edwards, to know that her archives are at the Schomburg, and here's what she did on behalf of Harlem. And she's from Harlem, she still lives in Harlem, and so it was beautiful to show them the capital that we have literally next door to us.

And so for us, it's just opening our doors, meaning our classroom, and then exploring Harlem, learning about the community, seeing the wealth that's there. Every culture and community has innate wealth. It's up to us to explore it, to make sure kids know the values and the tenants, the principles, the good practices that is already in them. We're just teasing it out a bit so that we know that you come from greatness. We're just here to make sure you cross the Ts and dot the I's. But you've been here before. Your history has told us that you've survived the Middle Passage, your first generation, your mothers and fathers have sacrificed and love and care deeply. We're just here to build on that, to compliment that, and make sure you know it so that we got next. So, how do we push the race and the community and the culture forward?

And that's what Harlem has always done. That was the Renaissance. And as Dr. Davenport said, we just want to bring it back because I think we forgot that we come from greatness.

Vincent Boudreau

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what you call landing the plane. Thank you for that. That is absolutely... Amen.

Thank you for listening to From City to the World. I want to give a special thanks to our two guests, Dr. Sean Davenport, who is the Community Superintendent of District 5 in the New York City Department of Education. And also to Dr. Terri N. Watson, the Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at CCNY, and also at the CUNY Graduate Center.

The show is produced by yours truly, Vince Boudreau and Angela Harden. Thank you for listening.

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