Making Black History Today: At Booker T. Washington Academy, the Uncommon is Common

"Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way."

These are the famous words of Booker T. Washington, one of the foremost African-American thinkers and leaders of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And with just a glance throughout the hallways of the New Haven public charter school that bears his name, this is exactly what you’ll see happening. At Booker T. Washington Academy, the uncommon truly does become common. That’s why this is a school that is "Making Black History Today."

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A School with Homegrown Roots

To understand the ways in which Booker T. Washington Academy is "Making Black History Today," you have to start at the very beginning of its story. Faith and community leaders in New Haven came up with the idea of starting the school in 2008 after listening to scores of community members who were worried about the lack of high-quality schools available in their neighborhoods. The concept was to create a pre-K-8 school that would specifically address the needs of the Dixwell/Newhallville communities - areas that are predominantly Black, brown and low-income, and historically served by underperforming schools.

"This school was literally created to address a specific need in a specific community," says John Taylor, Executive Director of Booker T. Washington Academy. "And what’s important about that is our own people are taking action to solve some of the woes that are affecting us as people."

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By 2014, Booker T. Washington Academy received its charter, welcoming its first group of students that fall. But Taylor says the opening of the school was a collective community effort, and wouldn’t have happened without Black-owned businesses as well as the ongoing support of Black community leaders. The Black-owned Diggs Construction company spent their own money upfront to help renovate and ready a building that had been vacant for five years to house the school. Meanwhile, Dr. Reginald Mayo, former superintendent of New Haven Public Schools, also played a vital role in helping the school in those early days. Dr. Mayo "moved mountains," Taylor says, in order to help the school make it through the rigorous process of opening its doors. Members of the community also showed up and showed out, helping to decorate and prepare classrooms, as well as recruit new students.

"In concert, all of these forces played a part in getting this school off the ground. So to some degree, there’s history in that," Taylor says, adding "I think it’s appropriate to look at Booker T. Washington Academy as an example of what we can do when we leverage the resources we have access to in order to make something happen."

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A 'Distinct' Student Experience

Taylor says one of the things he’s most proud of about the school is that Booker T. Washington Academy is a "high-quality, comprehensive school" designed to "meet the needs of all learners." Booker T. Washington Academy scholars are offered Spanish language classes as early as Kindergarten, as well as inquiry-based science classes, dance and art as early as pre-K. For many district schools, these types of offerings are either nonexistent, or aren’t introduced until much further down the line.

For a school that serves predominantly Black, brown and low-income families, having access to these types of enriching activities can be transformative. And very often, these opportunities are most readily available within public schools of choice, specifically charter schools, which are granted increased flexibility in exchange for increased accountability. Taylor has worked both in traditional public schools and with charters. He says that the charter environment is unique because there is a general commitment to doing whatever it takes to help students succeed, whether that’s through extended school days, remediation classes built into the core curriculum, opportunities for advanced learners or even extra support for families. And there are are fewer barriers to implementing these extra supports within the charter environment, he says.

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At Booker T. Washington Academy, these collective supports are paying off in a big way. Just last week, the Connecticut State Department of Education named Booker T. Washington Academy a School of Distinction, and it was the only charter school in the state to be classified as a 1 out of 5, which is the highest classification possible.

Sharing is Caring

While charter schools were initially conceived to be laboratories of learning with the intention of sharing best practices with district schools, Taylor says he hasn’t seen tremendous interest from district schools in taking advantage of that. That’s something he’d like to see change.

"Our outcomes are dramatically different than traditional public schools here in New Haven," he says. "That’s historical. What would truly be historical is if they looked at us for lessons learned."

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On average, charters in Connecticut serve more Black students than their host districts, and serve more students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch than their host district. And with that, schools like Booker T. Washington Academy are still on average outperforming the host district. Together, Taylor says charter schools and district schools alike can help more kids succeed by working together and learning from one another.

Taylor says, "Our goal is to make sure that every kid is getting a high quality education. So it’s not like we hold onto some secrets; we’ve shared with everybody who wanted to come up." He goes on to say, "This is all a public space, we all should be sharing our best practices and being willing to change or make alterations as needed. I don’t sense that that happens enough."

You Can’t Be What You Can’t See

A recent study showed evidence that having just one Black teacher in elementary school can make a tremendous difference for Black children, from being less likely to drop out of school to an increase interest in aspiring to go to college. At Booker T. Washington Academy where the student population is primarily African-American, Taylor takes this seriously, and intentionally places Black professionals throughout the building. He says their instructional staff is made up of just over 20 percent Black, brown or multiethnic instructors; but that when you count non-instructional staff, that figure jumps to about 58 percent people of color in leadership positions throughout the school.

"It’s really, really important that we create environments where there’s a large degree of diversity, and that the diversity looks more like the population we serve," he says. This, Taylor says, contributes not only to student success, but also a comfort level for families in taking an active role in their child’s education.

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When you walk the halls of Booker T. Washington Academy, you can immediately sense the intentional focus on diversity. Photos and quotes from notable Black, Latinx, Asian and multiethnic figures are displayed prominently on the walls, while the philosophies of thought leaders like Booker T. Washington are weaved into lesson plans ranging from art to music to math. All in all, it creates an environment where students are honoring Black history and are celebrating cultural diversity on a daily basis. Every day, these students are seeing everything they too are capable of.

And that even extends to Taylor himself.

In the earlier days of Booker T. Washington Academy, he says a group of students were instructed to identify someone whom they saw as a hero and draw them. "And so there was this picture of this bald headed man who looked nothing like me, but in the print it said: 'The person I admire most is our principal Mr. Taylor, and here’s a picture of him.' I’m looking at the picture offended because I look nothing like that, but the reality is this kid looked at me as somebody (they) could aspire to become like."

While humorous, Taylor recognizes just how important and empowering his presence is at this school, where quite possibly the next Booker T. Washington is being educated right now.

"At the end of the day, you have got to create opportunities for kids to see people in positions of power and in positions of influence in order for them to not look at education as an abstract activity," Taylor says. "If you can perceive it, you can achieve it."

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Further Reading:

Making Black History Today: Ebony Green, Elmwood Village Charter School, Buffalo via Extra Credit

What's Right With Schools: Booker T. Washington Academy via WTNH

 

Kerisha Harris
Kerisha is the Connecticut Communications Manager for the Northeast Charter Schools Network.
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Making Black History Today: At Booker T. Washington Academy, the Uncommon is Common
Making Black History Today: At Booker T. Washington Academy, the Uncommon is Common
Read the blog at Extra Credit