One Good Question with Denese Shervington: How do we re-engage the Black middle class in public education?

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One Good Question

This post is part of a series of interviews with international educators, policy makers, and leaders titled “One Good Question.”  These interviews provide answers to my One Good Question (outlined in About) and uncover new questions about education’s impact on the future.

In what ways do our investments in education reveal our beliefs about the next generation’s role in the world?

I think the investment is in trying to find a formula that can get more kids children in line so that they won’t be a nuisance anymore. We’re not creating learners and thinkers.  We’re creating an underclass of Black children who can step in line and can continue to serve the service industry in New Orleans. It’s really hard as a middle class Black person here, because then you have to question your own stuff.  Enough of us in the Black middle class have gotten out of public education, and now we’re oppressing those youth and families who still rely on public education. When I go into the schools and see the kids, I hurt.

I’m too old to not speak the truth.

Schools here now are such a disappointment. My kids went to public schools in New Orleans.  At that time, in the 80s,90s, early 2000s, if you were poor but you had encouragement around education in the home or your community, you could still go to the public schools and be ok. You can’t do that anymore.  Our schools are actually traumatizing the children.  I was in an elementary school two weeks ago observing kindergarten and 1st graders. They were nervous.  I can’t imagine how you learn when you are so nervous.  A few kids, based on their personality style, those who do well under pressure, will do well, but that’s not most children.  They had to stand in a line and do these rote things like « track the teachers with your eyes.”  The schools do these standard things that they think creates discipline, but it’s not personalized.  It feels like you’re in a military school, or, at worse, in a prison.

The Black middle class, we have abandoned our children.  I don’t know any Black middle class parents who are sending our kids to these schools, they’re sending their kids to the private schools. That means we don’t care about what’s going on with those who are less able to advocate for themselves.  I don’t think that White middle class New Orleanians would tolerate that kind of treatment to their children either.  It bothers me when we’re talking about how great the charter schools are here when this basic level of humanity does not exist.

Schools are beginning to implement trauma-informed care models to support students with chronic negative behaviors.  Is this work best for individual cases or can entire school communities benefit from trauma-informed pedagogies? 

There are two things that all schools need to consider when implementing mental health supports: overall school climate and accurate diagnoses of root causes.

If you want to deal with mental health, you can change 80% now by addressing the school climate.  Don’t feel sorry for poor black kids.  Love them and have really high expectations for them.  I’m borrowing from Andre Perry who says that you don’t have to punish our kids into learning.  The no excuses school models have a disrespect and disregard of our children’s humanity.  Start with changing those practices.

Eighty percent of our kids are being misdiagnosed in special education.  Most progressive school communities provide behavioral health, but the root causes are not behavioral, they’re emotional.  The behaviors are the end products of things happening inside.  These kids are traumatized.  When a kid is displaying a lot of behavioral dysfunction, it’s usually because there’s something happening that they don’t have any control over and they can’t communicate it.  They don’t have the language sophistication to talk about their feelings, so they show you.  Until a student is properly diagnosed, s/he won’t get the proper treatment.  This goes back to the first condition: you have to care about the student and love him/her as an individual to wonder why he’s misbehaving.

Schools with strong student support teams will, at the very least, ask about motivations for student behaviors before they start a functional behavioral assessment.  The majority of school-based practitioners have never heard of #Sadnotbad.  How do we get practitioners to understand this?

It’s like we’re trying to do “fast mental health.”  You really have to spend time building relationships for the children to trust you and feel safe.  If you start with the attitude that Black children are not inherently bad, or inferior, then it makes you want to do some stuff differently.  A high-level of love and caring means that you don’t stop at the first question.  You are driven to ask why and keep asking why until you really get to the source.   That heart is not unique to Black educators.  At Jean Gordon School, my children had a White principal who deeply believed that all children deserved to be loved, and cared for and educated.

We also need to pay attention to our adolescents, male and female, who are gender non-conforming.  We’re doing a Twitter chat focused on LGBT teens for suicide prevention month.  If the kid is in a school where there is at least one adult with whom they can connect, it makes a difference.  We need a safe space for the kids to interrogate what’s going on in their lives.  One of our health educators tells the story of a kid, who was having a lot of challenges at school, asking “Can people be gay? Can boys be gay? Can I be gay?”  That could be a benefit of the TFA corps.  They are more likely to create safe space for kids to be different and may themselves be gender non-conforming.  Most traditional and/or older Black educators still struggle with this.

Whenever I talk about trauma in schools in NOLA, it’s not just due to Katrina or community divides.  For many of these kids it’s about the intrafamilial violence that they’re experiencing around identity. Every community can benefit from these practices.

denese-shervington-headshotDenese’s One Good Question: For me, I think the progress is going to have to start with us. What do I contribute to the process of healing and becoming whole for us in the Black community?  This new integration has not served us : so, how do we get back to a collective consciousness and feel responsible for all of our children?   Mine have succeeded, yours will succeed.  But until every child has the capacity, your children could be dragged down by others.  These are all of our children.

About Denese:

Dr. Shervington has an intersectional career in psychiatry and public mental health. She is the President and CEO of The Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies (IWES), a community-based public health institute, and Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Tulane University. At IWES, Dr. Shervington directs the community-based post-disaster mental health recovery division that she created in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. At Tulane, Dr. Shervington provides psychotherapy supervision for psychiatric residents. Dr. Shervington is a graduate of New York University School of Medicine. She completed her residency in Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco, and is certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology. Dr. Shervington also received a Masters of Public Health in Population Studies and Family Planning from Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. In 2006, she was awarded the Isaac Slaughter Leadership award by the Black Psychiatrists of America. In 2012, she received the Jeanne Spurlock M.D. Minority Fellowship Award from the American Psychiatric Association.





The Author

Passionate about education reform, multilingualism, peace, diaspora dance forms, and intersectionality.

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