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My Name Is Chyrise Harris and This Is Why I’m Fighting for Better Public Schools

My Name Is Chyrise Harris and This Is Why I’m Fighting for Better Public Schools_5fbe764c10481.jpeg
Better Conversation Black Voice Black Voices Brown v. Board of Education busing Chyrise Harris class photos classroom Colorado Colorado Public Schools George Wallace Indiana Indiana Public Schools School Choice segregate segregated segregation

My Name Is Chyrise Harris and This Is Why I’m Fighting for Better Public Schools

My Name Is Chyrise Harris and This Is Why I’m Fighting for Better Public Schools

Three years ago this month, my dad passed away. Growing up in Indiana, he attended both the segregated and integrated schools of the Gary Community School Corporation. When he died here in Colorado, he was surrounded by what some might see as the remnants of a “separate but equal” system of education.

As a product of public schools in the Denver metro area, I wasn’t forced to attend an all-Black school like my dad was. But as the only Black girl in kindergarten through seventh grade, I often wondered where all the other Black kids went to school.

I thought about this even more recently, after my dad’s childhood best friend shared a photo of him sitting with his peers in first grade. When I compare that photo to my own first grade photo, three things are clear:

  1. I am my father’s daughter, from the fullness of each smiling cheek to the angle of each pensive brow.
  2. Going to school for each of us was serious business, our unpaid job for which attire would always be professional (hence his skinny tie and the stark contrast of my white tights against my Black patent leather shoes).
  3. Yet, with 30 years between his first day of first grade and mine, I sat in a classroom where no one looked like me and he sat in a classroom where everyone looked like him.

How is it that we could both grow up in a post-Brown v. Board of Education era and both attend schools with the same homogeneity as the pre-Brown v. Board of Education era?

Recently, The New York Times broke it down about as clearly as the LifeTouch photos that have captured so many class pictures since 1936. With nearly 90 percent of Black students in our nation’s capital still attending schools where less than 10 percent of students are White, it’s no wonder that class photos from coast to coast look a lot like the photos my dad and I took with our classes.

While many would argue it is reprehensible that my dad’s parents had to rely on busing and the rule of law to ensure that he had access to a quality education, isn’t it just as reprehensible that my parents would have to choose between me learning to read as the only Black girl in a high quality school—or my learning more about things like the best hair grease to prevent breakage, from one of many Black girls trapped with me in a lower quality school?

Please don’t misunderstand me, I do not believe all schools serving high populations of students of color are low quality. But, a lot of inequity often does exist. I also acknowledge that my parents had a choice because they had access, and I am grateful for the ways they sacrificed to ensure I could attend a good school.

But in choosing the educational opportunities they knew I deserved, they sacrificed the culture and diversity they valued so much. And, is that a choice they should have had to make? Should any parent?

I’m not a parent yet, but when the day comes for me to enroll my kids in school, I’ll be grateful to have the choices my dad’s parents didn’t. But I also don’t want to be forced to make the same choice my parents did for me.

And so…

  • I’m passionate about education because I believe in the hope that One Day can bring, that all kids will receive a quality education in classrooms where no two students look the same, learn the same, or dream for the future quite the same.
  • I support parent voice because I’ll be you-know-what if anyone ever tried to steal possible from my kid.
  • I believe in school choice because, although the neighborhood school down the street should be just as excellent as the public charter school around the corner, that’s not always the case, nor is the scenario in reverse.
  • I defend school accountability because every child, regardless of race, economic circumstance, language, ability, or any number of backgrounds, deserves to know that he or she is actually learning enough to grab hold of the future they desire.
  • I work at Education Post because the power of my voice and the voices of parents, students and teachers across this country can spark conversation and influence the changes needed to provide a better education for all kids.
  • And, I will always fight for educational equity and opportunity so that, unlike my dad and me, my child won’t be born in, learn in or die in what many would call the new era of segregation in American schools.

So consider this: Alabama Governor and infamous segregationist George C. Wallace actually got one thing right in his inaugural address in 1963. Indeed we do live in a time “where the greatest people that have ever lived trod this earth.”

Attempting to block integration at the University of Alabama, Governor George Wallace stands defiantly at the door while being confronted by Deputy U.S. Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

But haven’t there been enough “lines drawn in the dust” and gauntlets tossed “before the feet of tyranny”—all to separate our kids?

There may be no one physically blocking Black and Latino students from the doorways of today’s top-notch schools. But there are plenty of barriers keeping many of them from attaining the excellent education that so many of their White peers receive. And those with the means to push through the blockades of income, distance and even the disbelief of others, gain access to the latest in educational technology, college prep classes and experiential learning opportunities—often only to leave a trail where few of their peers of the same race can follow.

Enough, now.

It’s past time for a new stand in the schoolhouse door. It’s time to stand for equity, for choice and access, for accountability, for excellence and for desegregation now, desegregation tomorrow, desegregation forever.

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