Lack of access to quality education remains a pressing issue for many families in this country. Programs such as the controversial No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top have been enacted by the last two presidential administrations and presented as methods for closing the gargantuan gap that exists in our educational system today. Alas, Black communities across the country continue to be dealt an uneven hand when it comes to funding and adequate resources for their schools. In some cities, the dropout rate for young Black men and women exceeds 50 percent.
Teach For America has worked to serve as a linchpin in education for almost 25 years. Omari Todd joined the organization in 2000 as a Corps member and now serves as TFA's Senior Vice President of Regional Operations for the City of Baltimore to help eliminate the gross inequalities that low income and impoverished neighborhoods face in education on a daily basis.
EBONY recently sat down with Omari Todd to discuss the educational disparities in Black communities and his organization’s plans to close the divide.
EBONY: When you were in the classroom working as a teacher, what were some of the things you noticed that made you want to help reform the educational system from a higher position?
Omari Todd: I taught for four years and, in the classroom, I saw the potential my kids had and I felt the impact I was having on their educational opportunities. When I looked outside the windows of my classroom, I also saw all these social ills that existed ranging from drugs, housing and poverty. I knew that I wanted to figure out one, how do we grow out the scales of the leaders who are doing this work and, two, how do we impact the social issues that existed? It’s one thing to be a great teacher and we know teachers have the ability to put students on a different trajectory in their lives, but I also knew that we couldn’t solve these problems through great teachers alone. I wanted to figure out how I could I continue to grow my leadership to have a greater impact at a higher level because those are going to be things to help us close the achievement gap.
EBONY: How did we get to this point where the educational system seems to work against Black children and not for them?
When you look at the study the council in California put together recently, it said that one out of four children by the time they reach kindergarten, only see themselves having a bright future. That is just unacceptable.
OT: The single greatest indicator that predicts a child’s outcome is their zip code. And when you look at the zip codes where our students are coming from, there is poverty, structural and societal racism, and these communities have been left behind for years. There is this vicious cycle of poverty that has been holding back our communities along with the societal structures that don’t create opportunities to ensure all our kids have the same opportunities. We’re not leveling the playing field. This is a problem of neglect. We’ve neglected our communities. We haven’t increased our opportunities in this country. We haven’t built structures that would allow our kids and families to have different opportunities in life. Our communities are poor and it needs to change. When you look at the heart of the problem, by the time our children reach the age of nine, they’re already three to four levels behind. As they continue to go through the educational system, they fall farther and farther behind. The question becomes how can we create opportunities that will allow our children to get the tutoring they need and have access to after school programs and extended days? -- So we can work to close the achievement gap that exists between our children in the communities we serve and their affluent counterparts. I think the conversation should be about the process we can take to ensure our children are getting the opportunities they need. So – by age nine, they’re not starting three to four grade levels behind, but they’re working to get ahead and they’re farther ahead than when they started.
EBONY: What are some of the challenges Black boys and girls face inside and outside of the classroom, not only in Baltimore but across the country?
OT: When you look at the study the council in California put together recently, it said that one out of four children by the time they reach kindergarten, only see themselves having a bright future. That is just unacceptable. We don’t have the expectations that we need for our children. Our kids have internalized this way of thinking in ways that, from when they start, they don’t believe they’re going to finish. I think that is just criminal. It all goes back to the vicious cycle of poverty. Our students don’t have the right access to healthcare and nutrition. They’re starting from a disadvantage in these communities. All