Four Educators, Three Days, 600 miles, One Mazda, Kids From Five Universities and Infinite Hugs

Dec 5, 2016 12:00:00 AM


The Lincoln High School Alumni Support Tour was born from the struggles we saw in our first-generation college students. Over the last decade we’ve built a college going culture in our school. We pushed them to apply; they trusted us and took a risk, but something wasn’t clicking. They were getting admitted to solid schools, but were struggling when they arrived on campus. They had the academic chops to make it in college, but were wrestling with separation from the familiar and cultural isolation. They were largely students of color who now found themselves in rural, predominantly White spaces. They felt alone. One student in particular was attending Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. Her professors mispronounced her name, people were asking to touch her hair, and students assumed she was an international student from Africa, because they couldn’t fathom a Black American in college with them. That same year, there was a blackface incident on campus with the girls’ soccer team. It was this student’s struggles, which ultimately led to her departure from the university, that inspired the first Alumni Support Tour back in 2014. This weekend was our third iteration, supported by a gift from Foundation for Healthy Generations. I was joined this year by three coworkers: my limitlessly patient wife—an English teacher, an extraordinary math teacher, and the hardest working guidance counselor I have ever worked with. On Friday, we visited our alumni from 2014 at Central Washington University and broke bread at Cornerstone Pie in Ellensburg. I had them as freshmen and seniors, they are now juniors in college. I was insanely proud of them. That evening, we were hosted on a farm in Central Washington by Shannon, the former general counsel for Tacoma Schools. We then headed to Pullman and visited Washington State University and Cougar Country Drive-In. One of our alumni will begin student-teaching in math at a nearby high school this spring (YASSSSSS!). Another former student is headed to Jacksonville, Florida to join Teach For America, teaching secondary English (YASSSSSS! x2). Another student is the president of the Black Student Union and he shared his story of building solidarity with Hispanic/Latin@ students the day after the election—when supporters of the President-Elect erected their cardboard and plywood “Trump Wall” on campus. They talked about navigating campus administration and their frustration with tone deaf school administrators. They held back tears and I was inspired by their poise. At the end of the day, I was so exhausted that I fell asleep at 8 p.m., with my shoes on. We concluded the trip Sunday morning by visiting Spokane, where we visited alumni from Eastern Washington University, Gonzaga and Whitworth. We met at Molly’s, a small diner in the heart of the city, where we met our biggest crowd and heard about plans for Georgetown Law School, spoke to a former running-start student (slightly petrified about the prospect of graduating from college at the age of 19), and one young man re-won my heart when he broke out his poli-sci 311 notebook to scribble some notes, as the adults at the table lapsed into a conversation about state education policy.  

This Is Why

This weekend is the natural outgrowth of our shared pedagogical philosophy. We believe in a different model of schooling than is practiced across much of America. We believe in a model of education, where you ensure students’ basic life needs are met, hold them unapologetically to high standards, and support them into their transition to adulthood. This is why I run a clothing bank of dress clothes, for young men out of my classroom. This is why our filing cabinets are actually snack cabinets. This is why we have more students of color passing AP exams than other schools allow in "their" advanced classes. This is why nearly 200 hundred students filled our school this weekend for additional help and support from their teachers. Education is a relational process, rather than a transactional one. Low-income students and students of color are equally as capable as those from middle class and suburban schools—but they often need more support in K-12 and guidance in navigating systems in early adulthood. We need a shift in mindset in public education—as a system, our obligation to our students continues beyond the moment they cross the stage at graduation.

Nate Bowling

Nate Bowling is a high school government teacher in Tacoma, Washington, who was named the 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year and a finalist for National Teacher of the Year. He is also a recipient of the 2014 Milken National Teaching Award and founding member of Teachers United. In August 2017, he came together with more than 40 other African-American parents, students and teachers to talk about the Black experience in America's public schools. These conversations were released as a video series in Getting Real About Education: A Conversation With Black Parents, Teachers and Students.

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