Chapel Hill: Opinion

The Great Hope: Kindergarten and Community – Katie Mgongolwa

Katie McGongolwa
Katie McGongolwa

My name is Katie, and my kid is about to start kindergarten.

If you are a parent, I am willing to bet you can feel the stress and energy radiating out of that sentence. What a process, right? What a change!

I have never been overly sentimental about stages changing; there are always easy parts and hard parts about seeing certain chapters end and others begin. But kindergarten is gnawing at me in a way that these other stages haven’t.

Perhaps because there’s a certain permanence to it: preschool always had a clear end in sight. Perhaps it’s because I am a teacher, and I recognize how these early years of education can really set the tone for a child’s love of learning and understanding of self. Maybe it’s because of the current political climate, where a brown girl’s experiences in school can be tumultuous. And probably it’s because she also just lost her first loose tooth and this sweet cocoon of early childhood seems to be slipping away.

We live in Chapel Hill, the same town I grew up in. I am a proud product of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools system, from Estes Hills Elementary School to Phillips Middle School to East Chapel Hill High School. I’ve been excited to have my daughter become a member of this great school district.

We’ve been touring local schools. We toured the school we are districted for, as well as some of the dual-language school programs. When we visited Frank Porter Graham Bilingüe, vice principal José Nambo led the tour. The other mom on the tour and I were in the same position: this was our first child to enter kindergarten, and our brains were frantically balancing pros and cons. Mr. Nambo understood this feeling all too well: he described the feeling of sending his first child to kindergarten as “the great hope.”

That comment settled into my mind, and I liked it. This feeling I had? Hope.

Hope is important for parents and teachers alike to have for education, but it can be challenging. When Betsy DeVos was confirmed as Secretary of Education, I watched the vote with the intensity some had toward the Super Bowl overtime.

I’m reminded of when my husband and I moved back to the United States after living in Tanzania. Obama was running for re-election, and as we settled into our new life in the States, Obama’s presence gave me a Great Hope.

Politics aside, here was a success story that mirrored my own daughter’s beginning: a black East African dad, a white American mom, and a brilliant kid. I felt the same during Hillary Clinton’s campaign – not necessarily because of her political party, but because I so desperately want my clever, funny, beautiful child to succeed without barriers. People like Obama and Clinton gave me a Great Hope that this could be possible.

But having a child start kindergarten in 2017 has certain important political implications. Locally, families can choose to invest in local public schools, private schools, diverse schools, high-scoring schools, dual language schools, and more. I wondered, which schools have administrators and teachers that look like my daughter? What happens when they don’t?

Chapel Hill, which has struggled since desegregation to truly encompass its diverse populations, has taken concrete actions in recent years to educate the community on the intersection of education and equity. One such is way is through the CHCCS’ Campaign for Racial Equity, which hosts Conversations on Equity monthly.

In February, Stephanie Perry and Wanda Hunter led a conversation on eugenics in public schools. In an intimate crowd at the Chapel Hill Public Library, Perry dissected how systems have continued in our schools, affecting everything from standardized testing to tracking. Parents spoke out about struggling to advocate for their children in local schools, and wishing they’d known better how to do so.

Perry also introduced us to the book “The Impact of Slavery on the Education of Blacks in Orange County, North Carolina: 1619-1970.” The author, Rosetta Austin Moore, was present, and received a standing ovation from the group. Later, I bought the book off Amazon, both eager and afraid to understand how desegregation and oppression still connected in our community.

This becomes increasingly important as local districts like Orange County Schools contend with the pernicious Confederate flag debate and we continue to question whose safety is paramount. I find myself asking different questions of my daughter’s future school than I would have a few years ago: What kind of anti-bias training does your school do? What are concrete ways your school promotes anti-racist education? How do you connect to and uplift the historically marginalized or disenfranchised communities at your school? How do you protect and nurture your students who are most affected by new, harmful policies?

As you can see, I’m a bit of a handful on tours. But these questions are important, and I continue to ask them. As a teacher, I also ask them of my own school and my own classroom. Imagine what our community could look like if we asked this of all our systems: banks, stores, government, social services, housing. Perhaps this could be our community’s mutual Great Hope.

The next Conversations in Equity event will be at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 21, at the Chapel Hill Public Library. It will feature teachers and administrators from Northside Elementary, and the session will be titled, “Equity Coaching and Antiracist Education in Action: Stories from Northside Elementary.”

Katie Mgongolwa lives in Chapel Hill. You can reach her at Katie.Mgongolwa@gmail.com.

The next Conversations in Equity event will be at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 21, at the Chapel Hill Public Library. It will feature teachers and administrators from Northside Elementary School, and the session will be titled “Equity Coaching and Antiracist Education in Action: Stories from Northside Elementary.”

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