I Was the Smart Black Girl Schooled in a White World But Zip Code Shouldn’t Matter Anymore

So much has already been said about the current election. People are disappointed. People are in shock. People are in fear. As a school leader, I am trying to have careful conversations with staff and students because you can feel the heavy as we sit with the thoughts of our country’s future. In the diverse suburb where I am a principal, this feeling of unity, diversity and equity is being challenged. But for many of us Black transplants in a mostly White world, this is a very familiar feeling. Many parents in the Chicagoland area work hard to find better schools for their students. This desire for quality schools crosses all racial and economic lines. Some families figure out the complex system of Chicago’s magnet and selective enrollment options and others make the pilgrimage to the ’burbs. But for most families of color, their zip code dictates the quality of their neighborhood option. Families of color often choose these more diverse environments because there is the underlying belief that everything will be “better.” Better because of more resources. Better because of more experienced and qualified teachers. Better because of a perceived sense of safety. Better because there is higher social capital in these communities, and that means lower crime, higher student achievement rates and improved trust—trust in your community, trust in your neighbors, trust in your police department and trust in your school district.

The Tale of Two LeeAndras

In 1980, my neighborhood school was John B. Drake on 26th and King Drive. It was flanked by the projects. My young mother and I rode the No. 3 King Drive Bus to Drake each day so that she could get me to school. While I looked like all my classmates and came from a similar economic upbringing, I stood apart academically. My parents knew it, the teachers knew it, and the principal knew it. So, they experimented with moving me to classes that could challenge me in other grades. Then I was offered an opportunity to participate in Chicago’s version of a desegregation program, so I was bused to Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Lincoln Park. This meant a long ride up Lake Shore Drive everyday for eight years. My parents moved to Auburn-Gresham eventually and my bus ride got even longer. I was out of my community, transplanted into an unfamiliar one, but it was the best option for me. My story is similar to many stories of Black students who went to White schools. It’s the tale of two LeeAndras. Socializing on evenings and weekends with my Black cousins and neighbors, walking to the school they went to in the mornings, but leaving them behind at the school bus stop to travel to my school where only a handful of kids and a few teachers looked like me. While I am grateful that I learned to play the clarinet, to speak French, to ski and play tennis, I did struggle with identity and belonging in my two existences, and I always felt like I had to defend my presence in this mostly White world. My classmates must have thought they were paying me a compliment when they would say, “You are different from other Black people.” So, I didn’t host birthday parties because I worried none of my classmates would make the pilgrimage to the Southside because they saw my neighborhood as dangerous. At the same time, my neighborhood friends and relatives reminded me of my place when they would say, “You talk White.” So, I learned to adjust my language to accommodate that world. Battling emotions that sometimes felt like shame and other times felt like guilt can be exhausting. Where do you fit in when you have Black friends who only relate to you socially and White friends who only relate to you academically? How can we move both forward?

Building Social Capital in Communities of Color

While I support diverse communities, I also believe in building communities of color. I have found myself in conversations at school defending my choice to live in a Black community. Explaining the beauty of my neighborhood and its value is my new life’s mission. When we start comparing predominantly White communities to communities of color, I want to help people start to change the narrative from “better"...to different. While the media floods our timelines with stories of violence and failure, we instead need to celebrate the successes we see in our urban neighborhood schools—increases in graduation rates, college access, Gates Scholars and much more. Telling these kinds of stories builds trust, and trust helps to build the social networks that are so crucial for educational success. As a school leader, I made the switch from an all-Black school to a racially diverse school in a more prosperous neighborhood—just like I did as a child. But we are all working hard to reach students no matter the school demographics. Let’s fight for “better” options in each kind of environment. Let’s make sure children don’t have to leave their zip code to have a shot at a great school.
An original version of this post appeared on Head in the Sand.
Photo of LeeAndra Khan's fifth-grade class
LeeAndra Khan is CEO of Civitas Education Partners. Previously she served as a middle school principal in Oak Park, Illinois, and formerly spent 10 years in three Chicago high schools as a principal, assistant principal and math teacher. Before beginning her journey into education, she spent 10 years as a civil engineer designing roads, highways, gas stations and bridge inspections. LeeAndra is ...

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