Research shows educational disparities between Black and White students are widespread and begin as early as preschool. In fact, Black preschoolers are 3.6 times as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as their White peers.
On February 6, Bank Street College hosted a two-part panel discussion titled “From Theory to Practice: Black Children Learning and Thriving.” The event was part of the national Black Lives Matter at School Week movement designed to promote dialogue, curricula, and community events dedicated to exploring structural racism and the policies that promote equity for Black children.
“Participating in Black Lives Matter at School Week and hosting this symposium demonstrates Bank Street’s commitment to collaboration, community, and building a better society by acknowledging the work that needs to be done to support and promote equity for Black children and their families,” said Takiema Bunche-Smith, GSE ’97, Deputy Director of the Center on Culture, Race & Equity, and lead organizer of the event. “It is important for us, as educators, to make space to discuss these topics with a focus on early childhood—where disparities begin—so we can work together to better support Black children and challenge systemic racism.”
The event, which was live-streamed to provide access to educators across the country, was well-received by an enthusiastic audience. Over 200 guests attended the event, with audience members traveling from all corners of New York City.
The first panel, “Black Children Learning,” was moderated by Dr. Robin Hancock, Director of the Guttman Center for Early Care & Education at Bank Street, and featured four speakers who have dedicated their careers to expanding equity in education: David A. Jones, filmmaker, author, and program specialist, Office of Head Start; Isoke Titilayo Nia, writer and educator; Maimuna Mohammed, educator and Facilitator and Content Developer at Bank Street’s Center on Culture, Race & Equity; and Anthony Tucker, GSE ’18, assistant principal and author.
The panel discussed a variety of issues around how to best support the early childhood education experiences of Black children from birth to age eight with participants sharing stories from their own lives to underscore the urgency around the identity of Black children, connecting with families, and educating others on how to recognize and combat implicit bias in school settings.
During her presentation, Nia reflected on her experience as a classroom teacher. “What I was finding in the classroom was that children could not find themselves culturally [in books]. They just could not seem to locate that identity that I knew they needed . . . If you truly believe that early childhood is important, you need to get some books and make sure they represent the children sitting in front of you,” said Nia, who told the audience she always travels with a suitcase of children’s books.
The discussion also focused on ways to authentically partner with families to support communication and build stronger relationships, how to build classroom environments that acknowledge, respect, and value all cultures and experiences, and strategies for empowering and strengthening young teachers.
After a short break for refreshments and vegan food by Woke Foods, Bunche-Smith moderated the second panel, “Black Children Thriving.” Speakers included Fela Barclift, GSE ’02, Founder and Director, Little Sun People, Inc.; Alvin Irby, GSE ’09, social entrepreneur and Founder of Barbershop Books; Akiea Gross, social entrepreneur and Founder of Equitable Schools, Inc.; and Anayah Sangodele-Ayoka, consultant and nurse-midwife. In this discussion, the group examined how to further support the early education experiences of Black children and elevate them from learning to thriving.
“What would our kids need at a very foundational level to thrive?” asked Akiea Gross. “At the core, at the minimum, Black children need Black teachers. When we talk about Black educators we have to also acknowledge that we are the 7 percent . . . The attrition rates are so high for teachers of color so unless we can figure out how to thrive ourselves, we’re probably going to keep leaving. In thinking about that, we need to make sure we are really hyper-focusing on community and what that means because in order for our kids to thrive, we need to make sure that we’re setting up communities for us to thrive as well.”
Each panel concluded with a productive Q&A session between the audience and speakers, including questions via text message from online viewers. Both panels encouraged attendees to challenge systemic racism by engaging in conversations about racism and bias, acknowledging the work that needs to be done around equity, and leading culturally responsive classrooms that value all cultures and experiences.
“Humility is an important part of being a great teacher and when I say humility I mean recognizing that you never walk into any classroom, interaction, or lesson knowing everything you need to know in order to make that information as relevant or engaging as it could be. And so [it’s about] being humble enough to say ‘I’m looking forward to learning something from my students and from my parents that can help me be more effective,’” said Irby.
The Center on Culture, Race & Equity team at Bank Street spearheaded the conception and execution of the event. Support from the institution and larger community poured in from across the College, including donations from the Graduate School of Education, Children’s Programs, Education Center, Alumni Relations, Social Justice and Equity Committee, College Advisory Council, and President’s Office at Bank Street.
“Many attendees reported they felt inspired after hearing from our panelists. We are proud of our team’s work in organizing such an important event and are thrilled with the response we received from the community,” said Zipporiah Mills, Facilitator and Content Developer at Bank Street’s Center on Culture, Race & Equity, and retired Principal of PS 261 in Brooklyn, New York.
“The support from the institution was essential to making the event a success. We are grateful for everyone’s efforts and look forward to convening future events on this important topic,” said Veronica Benavides, Executive Director of Bank Street’s Center on Culture, Race & Equity.