The State of the Black Child in West Virginia

A monthly column exploring education in the Mountain State

Welcome to my monthly feature, “The State of the Black Child in West Virginia.” The purpose of this opinion piece is to investigate and inform all West Virginians, Black or not, of how we Black citizens of this state are faring, regarding the state of our educational progresses and experiences. However, if I am honest, the questions I ask of the Educational system and of ourselves, as citizens, can also apply to anyone who is poor and marginalized, regardless of race. However, my focus here is to shine a light on what is happening to Black students in our state, and how we, the Black citizens of this 35 tth state, can change this deleterious paradigm for our children and grandchildren.

Why is this important? In a nutshell, it is this: The state of the educational opportunity of a community is a strong predictor of both how “livable” (meaning, a positive opinion on one’s quality of life”) one’s community is, as well as to how that community will fare in the future. When communities have multiple, diverse opportunities to receive a good K-12 education, all manner of indicators of community well-being are generally positive, from the lower local crime rate to how well the local real estate market is doing. People desire to live in places where their children receive what they believe is a good public school education. In addition to this, places where there are good schools have better attributes such as more varied shopping options, more recreational activities, and even cleaner streets, on average. This is no accident; it is a cornerstone of regional urban or suburban planning. If “good” schools exist in a certain community, that community is most likely poised to thrive.

The same is true in the inverse: If there are perceived to be poor schools in the community, it is often the case that the community is considered “less livable,” and there are negative factors if not in the forefront of the community, certainly creeping around the edges. A large number of suspended middle and high school students drives up juvenile crime (especially petty crime like shoplifting and vandalism) and fewer families and businesses want to relocate in places where they don’t feel safe.

So what does this have to do with the “State of the Black Child”? Here is my premise: We well know that there are vastly higher rates of Black students’ suspensions and expulsions in our 55 districts. This trend is often far worse in counties where there are few Black students, opposed to urban areas like Charleston, Morgantown, or Martinsburg, where there are more. Thus, we have to ask ourselves two questions: First, WHY is this happening, and secondly, HOW can we change this trend and REDUCE the number of Black suspensions and expulsions in our state? These are the two chambers of the heart of our questions: the WHY, and the HOW.

So, in this series, I want to review all forms of education, from the beginning in Early Childhood Education access, to the top, asking questions like how, why and where we go to universities (and where we can or cannot get jobs thereafter). I will try, to the best of my ability, to break down various aspects of both our current educational system in the state, and what Carter G. Woodson (an illustrious son of West Virginia), calls the “MIS-Education” of our people, received at the hands of people who, by their own actions, clearly don’t have our interests at heart.

The purpose of this series is simple: I want you, parents, students, grandparents, business owners, taxpayers, what have you, to think about how your children are being either educated or MIS-educated in this state, and ask the question as to why we all don’t scream and holler bloody murder because of it. Our ancestors fought tooth and nail for all of their children and grandchildren to be able to read and write in the Reconstruction years after slavery, going so far as to open community schools for themselves when no school was opened for them. Each one would teach one, and from those tiny seeds of knowledge came great minds: Woodson, yes, but Booker T. Washington, and Carrie Williams (Black teacher in Tucker County who, with J. R. Clifford, first Black attorney in West Virginia and the great-uncle of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.), who sued the state so that Black students could have a nine month instead of a five-month school year just as white students did. Without that case, there would never have been enough legal precedent for Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, in 1954. All these, our REAL Founding Mothers and Fathers of the Black Experience, are those who struggled for our students’ education rights in a time when most of the U.S. paid their newly freed citizens little mind. So, after all these many luminaries who worked tirelessly to make a fine education the centerpiece of our American citizenship, the veritable capstone of each generation, building success upon success, are we saying that we will no longer carry the torch for our children, condemning them to unfair and unequitable practices and policies in these 55 school districts, rendering them unfit to achieve their education and training goals? When will we speak out? When will we attend the January Legislative sessions and demand better education for our children? Have we given up?

I hope not. Seriously, I PRAY not.

While this monthly article will not be a research paper (although I am an Education Researcher, so forgive my style and lack of brevity), I will endeavor to make sure that in each article, I place citations linking where you can read what I am stating, so that you may verify that these assertions are real and are well-known concept from scientific inquiry. Where I give my opinion, I will make that clear. However, if this article does nothing else but begin a conversation asking the “WHY” and the “HOW” as I did, above, it will have served its purpose. I believe that it is time for us as a community to stop allowing others to speak for us, and it is time that we speak for ourselves. I say, indeed I affirm, that we are sick and tired of our students being treated badly in the state’s schools, and this must stop TODAY.

I look forward to your emails, and to hearing your opinions (as I know that I will).

Keep vigilant with your own child’s education.

Ask your children each day about their day, and engage with what they say, even if it is make-believe — everyone needs to be heard and affirmed, and that is how children master language.

  • Help your children every night with their homework.
  • Never go more than two days without checking the online grading and attendance register, making sure that there are no errors.
  • Attend all parent/teacher meetings, or if not, schedule one simply to review your child’s progress with every teacher every single quarter that they are in school, regardless of their actual grades or grade level.
  • Make sure that all notes to the school are sent by email, and keep copies.
  • If you have a printer that can copy, have your child send all homework (even handwritten work) by email unless they have to work on that document in class (and you should know that by the teacher’s weekly schedules that are sent home, normally at the end of the prior week).
  • Try to keep copies of every homework assignment that they complete at home, preferably electronically. Involve yourselves deeply in your children’s world, of which school is the centerpiece.
  • Finally, educate yourselves as to your child’s aspirations, support them, and know what it takes academically and socially to achieve those goals, even if they are “pie in the sky.”

It is a lot, but as a single parent myself, I also had to do these things just a few years ago in a West Virginia county where my son was one of only five Black students in the entire district. I know how overwhelming it can be, but the rewards of successful, confident young men and women are very sweet. It is the only way forward for us, my dear brothers and sisters. No investment will pay as well as when we FULLY invest in the next generation of young people of African descent in America.

Our (educational) house is on fire, my brothers and sisters. We cannot fiddle while our children are burning. Let us do more ourselves, ask more of those whose job it is to educate our children, and change this terrible dynamic in these beautiful hills.

NEXT MONTH: What suspension policies do to young Black West Virginians, and ways to stop them.

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