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I’m not supposed to be alive, much less thriving. When I was 6 years old, my pregnant mom and I became chronically homeless. For almost my entire childhood, we slept in squalid shelters, in abandoned homes infested with rats and without running water, on discarded mattresses in alleyways and on cold, metal bus station benches. I’ve been nearly stuck with a used needle and threatened by men who saw me as prey.
Living in extreme poverty means experiencing new trauma every day. This is why homeless students often fail to graduate and frequently enter the criminal justice system or suffer from debilitating chronic illness. I was doomed to fail, simply because I had lost the American life lottery.
But instead of failing, I became an “exception.” I am a Harvard graduate, nationally recognized advocate for homeless youth and an education professional supporting family engagement in a network of charter public schools. My story as an exception is celebrated. I even appeared on “Oprah” years ago. To this day, I am praised for surviving homelessness.
The problem with this is that the idea of the exception feeds the myth that anyone in our country can achieve success if they simply want it enough and work hard enough. This myth leads us to faulting individuals for their struggles instead of the power structures and social systems that define who is worthy of success.
I’m not asking educators to take on society’s larger systems of oppression, but we can certainly disrupt our own.
For example, one of the reasons I became an exception and escaped the cycle of poverty is that I mastered the art of being a “good Black child.” I was compliant, didn’t question authority and hid my personal trauma down deep, where no one could find it, including myself. My most powerful advocate — my mom — was punished for not representing the “good Black mother.” That is why this exception concept is truly insidious. It denies the humanity of every other child (or parent) who isn’t able to hide their trauma, like I was.
Systems of oppression exist everywhere there is power, but our public education systems perpetuate the worst kind of all: oppression disguised as opportunity. We say that all children have the right to the same quality education, but then we coerce poor children into persisting with an education we would abhor for our own kids.
As educators, we can change this. I’m not asking educators to take on society’s larger systems of oppression, but we can certainly disrupt our own. We can break the cycle of poverty for every single one of the families and students in our schools — not just a few exceptions — by engaging these families as equal partners in their child’s education. We must value families’ humanity by making them part of the solution, rather than always making decisions for them and centering only ourselves as the experts.
I work for Rocketship Public Schools in Washington, D.C. We’re in a city in which 75 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and 45 percent are at risk. Across Rocketship’s three DC campuses, one out of every five students is homeless. This means that far too many Rocketship D.C. students experience the same type of daily trauma that I did.
Many schools serving students living in extreme poverty point to the daily traumatic experiences these students face as the very reasons they can’t learn. Instead of engaging their families in the solution, they blame them for the trauma their children are experiencing, while also failing to recognize that these families themselves are suffering from the consequences of oppression, including trauma. Eventually, many of these children become a “lost cause,” a “disposable” person in our society. The cycle of poverty continues.
Family engagement is the key to breaking cycles of poverty; research on trauma has shown that healthy support from parents and other adult caregivers is, in fact, the key to offsetting the negative consequences of toxic stress in children. Familial influence, when leveraged effectively, can help children develop coping skills and resilience and create unheard-of academic outcomes. It did for me.
One solution Rocketship D.C. is implementing is the School Site Council model, which enables equal decision-making power between school leaders and families. This is not another name for a parent-teacher organization. This is a formalized structure that puts decision-making power into the hands of families. The School Site Councils examine school policies; support social-emotional learning instruction and extracurricular programs; develop schoolwide focus areas, goals and ways to address achievement deficits; and build a positive school climate and culture.
We believe that the society we are trying to create can be modeled inside our school walls by sharing power with our families, and the School Site Council model is one of many ways we do this. Our teachers also start the year by visiting each of their students’ homes. Each family works with us to track their child’s individual learning goals and is given the tools and the encouragement to be their child’s advocate.
Breaking down systems of oppression within public education requires building relationships with families based on mutual respect and trust. We can no longer afford to put family engagement on the list of things that are “nice to have” for schools serving low-income families. Engagement is essential if we want to stop celebrating exceptions, and instead celebrate ending generational poverty for entire school buildings full of children. That level of change will impact not just our families, but entire communities and generations to follow.
Khadijah Williams, a survivor of homelessness, is the D.C. senior manager of Family and Community Engagement at Rocketship Public Schools, a nonprofit public charter network of 20 elementary schools serving low-income communities with limited access to excellent schools. She also serves as a board member for The National Homelessness Law Center and the D.C.-based Innovative Academy of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
This story about schools and poverty was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.