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?
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 the social ills that exist along with the low expectations coupled with the fact that communities in which our students are coming from are being neglected. There are approximately 16 million students growing up in poverty throughout the country. When you look at the percentage of those students that are disproportionately growing up in poverty, they’re predominantly children of color. It all goes back to the zip codes that determine a child’s outcome. It seems their future has already been predestined for them. The low expectations, cycle of poverty, and lack of social resources has truly put our children at a disadvantage when they start and that continues throughout their futures.
EBONY: How important is it that more Black men and women become teachers?
OT: I think that it is important. When you look at the numbers for teachers, there are only 4.8 million Black men and women teaching, which is two percent overall. Then you look at the number of Black men who are in jail and you realize we’re up against a huge problem. More of our Black men are going to jail than through the educational system. We need to take this problem head on. Our kids definitely need more role models.
EBONY: What are some of the present and future plans the organization has to combat these problems in education?
OT: At Teach For America, our goal is to build an unstoppable movement with the communities we serve where the role we would play is to continue to identify leaders that are going to have a immediate impact in the short term. We want them to have a commitment to working to close the achievement gap while they’re teachers. In the long term, we want them to be committed to being lifelong advocates for public education and leading within education and in all sectors. Currently, we have 10,000 teachers across 46 sites throughout the country where we recruit at over 600 college campuses. A third of our teachers identify as people of color and the average GPA is 3.5. So – we want to continue to attract our country’s most promising future leaders to take these problems on not just in the immediate term, but to be lifelong advocates for closing the achievement gap both inside and outside of education. As I shared earlier, these problems aren’t going to be solved through education alone. We need leaders in all sectors. We need leaders in Congress, medicine, business, and law. We need to attack this problem through all avenues. We need communities across the country committed to solving these problems and our role is to help develop the leaders for that work.
Chris Williams is an internationally published writer. You can follow him on Twitter @CWmsWrites.