Don’t “Those Parents” Know What’s Best For Their Kids?

Faith networks can help educational leaders build deep partnerships with communities of color.
Thursday, April 18, 2013

Several years ago, former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and Chancellor Michelle Rhee sparked a national referendum on the educational status quo.  Like most visionaries, their approach either engendered adoration or disdain.

What I found most fascinating about the fallout from their respective tenures was the racial divide it left behind in the Washington, DC. An overwhelming percentage of African American residents voted against Mayor Fenty during the 2010 mayoral race, while the District’s white residents largely voted in favor of the incumbent mayor. In the end, Fenty lost the election, and both he and Rhee left DC.

After the election the postmortem began.  I found myself in numerous discussions with colleagues and friends about the election results.  There was general groaning about the future of education reform in the nation’s capitol (which, by the way, is still going strong largely due to Rhee’s successor, Kaya Henderson).

But the more troubling subtext in these conversations was the lament I heard on continual loop: numerous folks asserted that by ousting Fenty/Rhee, many African American parents had “voted against their own interests.” More than once I heard the statement: “These parents just don’t know what’s best for their kids.”


A low angle shot of a family wearing winter coats standing a reading from prayer books in a large church.


Photo by John H. White via WikiCommons

While I appreciate the sentiment and genuine concern underlying these comments there’s something off the mark (and frankly off-putting) about that line of thinking.

As an African American parent, I deeply believe that all parents want the best for their kids—even the parents who ousted Fenty and Rhee.  Yet, like anyone whose long-held institutions are about to experience significant change, families whose schools are undergoing dramatic overhauls need to be included and invested in the process.  And that perceived lack of authentic inclusion was the common frustration cited by many African American families.

But how can educational leaders build deep partnerships with communities of color? Does operating with a sense of urgency and genuinely listening to historically disenfranchised families have to be mutually exclusive?

One key may be to develop authentic relationships with faith-based communities.  In a recent study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 86% of African Americans say religion is an important part of their life, compared to 57% of the total adult population.   African American clergy have a tremendous ‘bully pulpit’ effect on the rest of Black America, and the historically black church, in particular, has a rich tradition of combining faith, social justice and action.

Local clergy in predominately African American neighborhoods often have strong ties to the community and can be a huge source of insight into what’s needed to improve public schools. Moreover, many congregations are already doing local work with schoolsthrough tutoring, mentoring and parental support programs.

The natural connections exist; we need to consider how to build authentic relationships that help ignite clergy and communities of faith—of all racial, economic and religious backgrounds—to develop even deeper partnerships alongside families and children in low-income public schools.

Education advocacy organizations can reach out to local clergy and faith leaders and listen to their perspectives about what’s needed to improve schools in their community.  As these relationships deepen, faith communities can become advocates for transformational change.  Faith communities, which believe deeply in the God-given potential of every child, can build bridges between parents, families and schools.

All parents want the best for their children.  If we want to support genuine, lasting change in our public schools, we must find new ways to build meaningful partnerships with all stakeholders.   To borrow a phrase from a fascinating Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute study on African American parents’ attitudes towards education reform, we must learn to do our work “with the community, rather than to the community” if “One Day” is ever going to become a reality.  


Nicole Baker Fulgham (@NicoleBFulgham) is the founder and president of The Expectations Project (@expectproject), a non-profit that mobilizes faith-based advocates for public educational equity, and the author of Educating All God’s Children: Why Christians Can—and Should—Improve Public Education for Low-income Kids (Brazos Press, April 2013).


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