Community and family life provide the foundation for success in school and beyond. It’s tempting to believe that on their own schools can address the challenges Black students face, but students’ out-of-school experiences are at least as important as their classroom experiences. This is an opportunity: by building our communities’ capacity to support their scholars’ academic and character development.
Informed parents already know that extracurricular activities help their children become successful. In-the-know families work to give their children the opportunity to travel, participate in sports or dance, try scouting, go to summer camps, and otherwise build as broad a base of experience as possible. The breadth of extracurriculars that the wealthiest students in the US have access to is a parallel educational system to which too many Black and brown students lack access. Those experiences are key to helping our students learn how to consciously apply what they learn in school to help accomplish their goals in life.
We can’t build the capacity of Black communities to raise academically successful young people if we focus on the classroom and ignore or alienate other sources of support for students. We have models on how to engage with our scholars’ identities in their physical, social, and digital communities to support their education. In Harlem, community gardens beautify neighborhoods, provide young people an opportunity to learn from and connect with their neighborhoods through participation, and build the community’s experience in organizing itself towards a common goal. In other communities, giving high school students representation on their local school board has helped them build and apply their social and political skills and take ownership of local policies that impact them.
The Internet and mobile devices are playing a bigger role in how successful people educate themselves. We face the same challenges in online spaces as traditional ones: if higher-income students are doing internships building websites while lower-income students struggle with getting access to a broadband connection, then our digital communities will be as segregated and unequal as our physical communities. We know that African-Americans are as or more likely than other Americans to own cellphones or use social media, so we need to support organizations like Silicon Harlem that work to build African-Americans’ representation in that industry.
In conclusion, ask yourself: how you can build your local and digital communities’ ability to support our young people? Join or start a block association and make sure to connect with the young people who are your neighbors. Volunteer to mentor, tutor, or coach children. As a movement, we should partner with and support organizations dedicated to a collective impact strategy that builds our communities’ capacity to support their young people. Through personal and organizational effort, we can make a healthy, supportive out-of-school environment a reality for all our children.
Emile Session lives in Brooklyn, NY and works for Achievement First, a network of high performing public charter schools. He has worked as a math teacher, education researcher, and classroom observer, and is a graduate of Cornell and Columbia University.