Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash

Abolitionist Teaching: Uncommon Charter Schools Aren’t As Woke as You Might Think

For a little less than a calendar year, I worked for Uncommon Schools in Troy, NY. If you haven’t heard of it, it is one of the larger and more well-known charter school networks in the United States. They currently have 54 schools, from elementary to high school, with 20,000 enrolled students in six different cities in the Northeast. Located in cities like Boston, Camden, Rochester, and Troy, the schools typically serve populations of “low income students.” According to Uncommon’s website, these schools are places where “every student feels truly loved and cared for, learning is both rigorous and joyful, and students are prepared for success in college and beyond.” Currently, their homepage highlights that more than half of their faculty and staff are people of color. The site includes a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion page, along with blurbs about “fighting for what’s right” and “standing with dreamers.” They highlight a recently written op-ed by the president of Uncommon Schools, Julie Jackson, that boasts, “We Were Founded to Battle Racism and Injustice.” They have a thoughtful statement reflecting on Juneteenth. Their promise is that, through extended school days and years and rigorous academics, students who are historically under-served and disenfranchised are receiving an equitable education that prepares them for college. Visibly, and in their mission statement, they are doing and saying the right things and optically joining the fight against racism and racist policies. In practice, they are not.

When I worked there, I taught seventh grade writing. I had just relocated from Queens, New York, where I was an 8th grade Special Education teacher in an English Language Arts classroom. I had been through the rigors of Teach for America, and I was ready to join one of the esteemed charter networks that, I believed, fought for equity and the dismantling of white supremacy and oppression.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

We are currently experiencing, and hopefully participating in, an uprising. White people are just waking up to the horrors of systemic racism and oppression of Black and Brown people. For the first time in my lifetime, I’m hearing many people — including the media and politicians — discuss police abolition, dismantling capitalism, abolitionist teaching and education, and abolishing the prison industrial complex and carceral system. This fight, of course, is not new. There is a long list of revolutionaries who have been working for these changes and other forms of equity and racial justice for hundreds of years.

As a starry-eyed twenty-something, I was hopeful that teaching at a charter network like Uncommon would allow me to contribute to the fight. I was hopeful that I could help effect change and racial equity in the education system by joining this elite group of educators. I had been disheartened and disillusioned by the sprawling bureaucracy of New York City’s education system. In my experience, teachers and administrators meant well, but everyone was so fried from the grind that there was little room for innovation. People talked a good talk when it came to equity, but that’s where it ended. I was looking for a school that was filled with educators who held similar beliefs to mine, and were hell-bent on taking action to reimagine education and how school is experienced for historically disenfranchised students, instead of working with cynical near-retirees from Long Island who were burnt out and lost love for teaching long ago.

Instead, I was faced with the same structural inequalities at Uncommon as I had in the public school system — with surprising twists that made the school day seem even more carceral and punitive than the public middle school I had just left in Queens. At the Uncommon school where I taught, with the exception of the woman who did parent outreach and the woman who ran the behavior room, every staff member was white. Everyone had the same aloof, frozen smile, everyone was too busy to stop and chat, and everyone was too focused on the content and curriculum to make meaningful connections with each other, let alone the kids. Sorry, not kids — not even students. We were supposed to call them scholars.

Scholars were expected to wear a uniform. Okay, I rationalized — so did many public schools, including the one I’d just left. The Uncommon uniform consisted of a polo shirt and a pair of khaki pants. If a student forgot their uniform or were unable to wear part of it at the public school in Queens, no problem! We always had extras on hand, and would supply the student with the necessary item or items. If a scholar forgot part of their uniform, however, parents had to sign a statement declaring, “I understand that if my student comes to school out of uniform, he or she may not be permitted to attend class, may need to wait for the appropriate dress to be brought in from home, and/or may receive an automatic detention or other behavioral consequence.”

In other words, scholars have to miss out on instruction and are forced to endure punishment and are ostracized from the classroom community — which, Uncommon claims, is part of the reason why they require a uniform. To help build a sense of community, as well as instill the values of education and attendance in school as synonymous with a workplace. From an early age (kindergarten on), this mentality forces students to believe that learning is the same as work — without the money. This mindset is inherently rooted in white supremacy, because it is rooted in capitalist ideology. Learning should not be synonymous with working for a paycheck. Learning should be the way in which we enhance our lives and connect with others. Learning should be authentic and inspiring rather than forcing students to accept the idea that the classroom is step one in their lifelong journey as a worker in the system. If a school requires uniforms to foster community, why does that community have to be based on “professional dress,” and what exactly does that mean? Assuming that there is a way in which people should dress as “professionals” perpetuates a white supremacist ideals by controlling unruly bodies of Black and Brown children.

In addition, the uniforms are not provided for students. Families must pay for the uniforms. According to the parent handbook, uniforms should consist of:

  • Light blue or white, long sleeve, button-down shirts with Troy Preparatory Charter High School logo

There is a footnote after the required shoes, stating that “only traditional loafer or lace-up style shoes are permitted. Work boots and platform shoes are not permitted, and heels cannot be higher than one inch. Open-toed shoes and sandals are not permitted at any point during the year, nor are shoes that look like sneakers.”

All of these clothing items are markers of whiteness and white norms. These uniform policies force Black and Brown bodies to conform to white culture through control and policing. In the article, “Dress codes are the new ‘whites only’ signs,” Andre Perry writes, “When racism is the overarching, unwritten law of the land, any and every rule can and will be used to control black people. Those who would have us return to a period of legal segregation don’t need to bring back signposts to separate us when they can discriminate in other ways, simply on the basis of how we look, how we dress, and how we wear our hair. When dress codes reinforce white norms, being black becomes a violation.”

The Troy Prep handbook goes on to specifically forbid some clothing items and accessories:

  • Shirts containing any text or images that are inappropriate in an academic setting

These forbidden items erase Black and Brown fashion and choices.

In the Washington Post article, “Black girls can’t dress their way out of racist and sexist policies,” Fatima Goss Graves writes that “more than half of the schools with the harshest dress codes have a majority black student population. These findings demonstrate a much larger problem within our school systems: Dress code regulations impose double standards for black female students, reinforcing racialized gender bias.” All scholars are repressed with such a stringent dress code as Troy Prep’s, but Black female scholars are doubly repressed through forbidden items like headscarves and headwraps, tank tops, “distracting or noisy jewelry,” and others. What message are we sending students that the ways they dress in everyday life don’t belong in an educational setting, or a place of work? Why are we clinging to the idea of respectability politics, entrenched in white supremacy? Why aren’t the staff of Uncommon Schools calling for a change in policy, if they’re so committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion?

In addition to the dress code, if a scholar did not “earn” enough “scholar dollars” through various expected behaviors, they were subject to a revised dress code. One such behavior was the expectation to sit in SLANT, yet another way of policing bodies — throughout the extended school day, all scholars were forced and expected to Sit up straight, Listen, Ask and answer questions, Nod for comprehension, and Track the speaker. This link is from the KIPP charter school network, arguably the most famous and far-reaching in the United States. Doug Lemov, a managing director of Uncommon Schools, outlines the “teaching technique” more thoroughly in his book and website, Teach Like a Champion, which might be better titled Teach Like a White Person. If scholars received enough demerits, they would have a negative dollar amount in their “account” at the end of the week. For these scholars, they were forced to remove their polo, wear a plain white t-shirt, and nobody was allowed to look them in the eye, speak directly to that scholar, or include them in any sort of community (i.e., they had to sit separately during lunch and were not allowed to participate in class discussions), including adults. In the classroom, as a teacher, I was not allowed to look at or interact with those students. In addition, during lunch, they were not allowed to eat any condiments. For a week.

Yes, you read that correctly. Punishment through restricted eating.

These punishments mirror punishments currently used in the prison industrial complex. These “consequences” are beyond consequences. They are demeaning and they strip scholars of everything they have — belonging, their voice, community, and their humanity. The first time I was told I couldn’t talk to a student or look them in the eye for a week was the first day I started planning my exit strategy from the school. I couldn’t wrap my head around the politics of exclusion and carceral punishment. Outside of charter schools, public schools have been under the same sort of scrutiny, and rightfully so, but I had never experienced (and continue to not experience, working in a public school district in Central New York) something so blatantly racist.

The parent handbook states that “Uncommon values and embraces its inclusive and diverse school communities and strives to provide a welcoming, safe and supportive environment for all students and families regardless of their race, color, ethnicity, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation and gender identity. If a student or his or her family would like to explore a particular accommodation based upon cultural or religious practices, or due to one’s disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity, the student or the student’s parents or guardian should contact a School Leader or adult the student feels comfortable with to schedule a meeting to discuss a plan to address the student’s particular circumstances and needs.”

What is uncommon here is the double-speak. On paper, and on their website, Uncommon Schools seem to be a paragon of diversity, inclusivity, and responsiveness. In reality, this is a false front for a deeply troubling reality — one that subjugates Black students on a daily basis. It is not enough to state that a school is committed to racial justice — policies, procedures, and daily systems need to change to reflect that commitment. We need to rethink the ways we teach students and diversify our methods, the expectations we set for them, and the expectations we have for our fellow educators. Instead of controlling and policing students, we need to reimagine structures and schools that allow students to be themselves, authentically, and in the process, learn. Instead of expecting students to sit in SLANT, we should expect and teach students to question those expectations — who are they serving? And why?

These are just a few of the policies that eventually drove me to leave my position early. I found the culture to be extremely problematic for adults and for children, and I wasn’t going to burn myself out for a system that was so clearly grounded in control, superiority, denial, distance, and silence.

As we continue to rise up, we need to abolish racist and white supremacist policies, systems, and structures in schools — charter and public. Until these policies and expectations are done away with, there’s absolutely nothing uncommon about Uncommon schools. Despite their claims, it’s just as rooted in white supremacy, if not more so, as any other school in the United States today.

Educator and writer in Central NY. I believe in public education and collecting things that are beautiful and/or useful.

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