Oakland preschool teacher Nini Humphrey knows what it means to center young Black children. She shares a personal experience that she had with a Black preschool boy who was transferred to her classroom mid-year. The boy was considered “challenging” by his previous teacher, and Nini discovered on day one the unruly behaviors that had led to this negative label.
In response, Humphrey says, “I had to establish trust with this child and his parents. I was able to set boundaries, rules, and expectations in the way that he understood. It was not easy. We were dedicated to giving that child what he needed, a place to feel safe.” By giving him leadership roles and classroom jobs—a new one every day—Humphrey gave the student something to look forward to in school, and something that made him feel important. “By the end of the year, the child was able to thrive without feeling like the ‘bad child.’ He was a loved member of the classroom.” Instead of treating the boy like a troublemaker, Humphrey integrated him into a classroom culture and structure where he was valued as a person, a helper, and a leader.
Humphrey’s anecdote set the stage for a compelling Mar. 16 event, “Centering Young Black Children in Oakland: Incorporating Anti-Racist Principles into Early Learning Practice.” Humphrey moderated the 75-minute discussion—hosted by Oakland Starting Smart and Strong’s Boys of Color work group—with a panel of experts that included two early learning education administrators from Oakland Unified School District, a researcher and a parent organizer. Close to 200 people from across the U.S. and Canada attended.
The program featured local efforts that aim to nurture Black children’s social and emotional development, improve educational outcomes, and repair the damage caused by unconscious bias and unacknowledged systemic racism.
Dr. Tasha Henneman talked about a training she co-facilitated for early learning educators to learn antiracist and culturally responsive strategies to improve outcomes for boys of color. These Promising Practices are “not just words on paper,” Henneman said. They are actionable ways to use evidence-based practices to disrupt systems that are deeply ingrained and inequitable. “We have to take time to understand the Black community and implications of historical racism, current racism, and practices that affect equity across all sectors.”
A new project in Oakland schools seeks to diversify the teacher pipeline. Early Literacy Kings is recruiting young men of color who are recent high school graduates for year-long residencies as role models and teaching assistants in transitional kindergarten classrooms. “Our kings are showing up on a daily basis, interacting with and respecting our young scholars,” says Taji Brown, who coordinates the program. “They're building a community of learning and they're building rapport. They have high expectations.”
The Oakland Unified School District is laying a foundation in their strategic action plan for long-term efforts centered on instilling antiracism and anti-bias practices. In team meetings, early learning leaders are reflecting on their own power, privilege, and lived experiences, and then working on how to put antiracist intentions into action, says Dr. Lawanda Wesley, who is the school district’s Director of Quality Enhancement and Professional Development for early education. “You cannot change what you do not name,” she says. “We can’t do performative wokeness.”
What’s more, Oakland parents are also deeply engaged in systems and policy change to support young Black children. “We have this amazing process to help families take their brilliance, their solutions, and put them into policies,” says Pecolia Manigo, executive director of Bay Area PLAN, a parent-led organizing group. Recently, Manigo’s group successfully advocated for the Reparations for Black Students Resolution, a districtwide commitment to eliminate harm caused to Black students by systemic racism. The resolution also calls for funds to be set aside to pay for the Black Student Thriving Plan, which will be released in August. The school board passed the resolution in March.
“Centering Young Black Children in Oakland” was produced in association with Bank Street College of Education's Early Childhood Symposium titled, "Disrupting Anti-Black Racism in Early Childhood Education: Center, Abolish, Liberate.” The event also supported the "Black Lives Matter At Schools Year of Purpose. ”
Later this fall, another group, the Center for Equity and Early Childhood Education, along with their partners will host an event in this series that will focus on supporting healthy racial identity development. OSSS will post more information when it becomes available.