I’m an engineer by trade, but I consider myself a scientist at heart. When it comes to the education of my four children, it’s essential for me to ask questions, observe and make adjustments if need be. The need to experiment is what led me to enroll my oldest child, my daughter Brianna, into a charter school. I was happy with her education at Albany Middle School, in California, until in 2009, racially charged taunting and lowered expectations had me reconsidering what was best for her. One day I decided to observe Brianna’s class and noticed the subtle ways her teachers expressed their low expectations of my daughter. During her math class, the teacher wrote a division problem on the board and asked students if they could solve it. Brianna raised her hand only to have her teacher question if she was even able to. In contrast, the teacher expressed surprise that some of her Asian classmates didn’t raise their hands. She expected them to know the answer. We happen to be African-American. Brianna wasn’t hurt or dejected by the teacher’s response. She didn’t see what I did, a subtle practice of making her doubt herself. I’ve prided myself in ensuring Brianna stayed a grade or two ahead in math, so I knew this had nothing to do with her ability. The teacher apologized when I brought up what I observed, but the well had already been poisoned and I had to find another school for Brianna, one that didn’t call her skills into question. The situation worsened in middle school. Children left pictures of monkeys on her desk and in one instance, a banana. I knew I had to intervene. After talking with school officials, the students responsible were suspended. While this was commendable, I was gravely concerned if the school was a healthy and nurturing environment for my daughter. I asked other students, including those who were biracial (African-American and Caucasian) and they confirmed my suspicions—students are treated differently based on their ethnicity.
Exploring Other Options
I could not jeopardize my daughter’s social growth at the expense of her academic success. I needed to explore other options besides the traditional public school system. Through my graduate work at UC Berkeley, I came to know board members at
CAL Prep who also were my professors. They recommended I visit the school and after two visits, I knew that was the place my daughter needed to be. We applied but unfortunately we didn’t luck out in its lottery. That year, shortly before Brianna was setting off for a nanotechnology camp and then a family vacation, we got a call from CAL Prep informing us a slot had opened. Although the timing was less than ideal, we jumped at the chance to send her to the school. We made it work. Right away, CAL Prep was different. It had an inclusive environment and its students were predominantly African-American and Latino. Kids were held to high standards; students had to complete at least 15 college credits and be accepted into a four-year college. You don’t see those kinds of expectations, especially for African-American children. Too many underperforming schools have mostly African-American students where they’re told in overt and not so overt ways they should doubt themselves. My daughter needed a school to challenge her and to believe she could handle demanding classes. By the end of her freshman year, Brianna enrolled into a local community college. CAL Prep’s academic strength, while wonderful, wasn’t what impressed me; it was how approachable and involved its teachers and faculty were. It had a Saturday school, a social event for parents complete with workshops; coffee chats with the principal; and annual student exhibitions where parents were invited to be judges. Parents were also expected to volunteer 40 hours per year. On top of all this, Brianna was given her teachers’ cell phone numbers and email addresses—not that they were ever hard to reach because they were so proactive about keeping me informed. CAL Prep was like the extension of your immediate family because you spent a lot of time with these people. Brianna still has relationships with her teachers and volunteers at the school. My daughter graduated with a 4.2 GPA and is now a young woman of 20 currently majoring in legal studies at UC Berkeley. Since she completed 75 percent of an associate’s degree by the end of high school, she will finish college early. Brianna’s three younger brothers all attend a charter school because of the resistance shown by the West Contra Costa County Unified School District’s administrators to provide a quality education to students at all educational levels. Social, emotional, and academic opportunities are denied when we don’t have school choice. School choice allows you to find the school that’s the best fit for your child, not because of what other people think you should have access to.
Fatima Alleyne is a proud wife and mother of four children. She is employed as a general research engineer at the United States Department of Agriculture investigating renewable energy sources for processing fruits and vegetables. She is also committed to education, serving on several committees at work and in her community, such as the Outreach, Diversity and Equal Opportunity (ODEO) Committee, ...