“Mr. Bourne, I am doing the best I can.”
That’s what Khalil’s mom said just after I had introduced myself on the phone as the school social worker. Before I could say anything else, she was already in defensive mode.
It was the fatigued voice of one single Black mom of four trying to manage several part-time jobs while keeping all her children safe and schooled nearly a year into a pandemic, and months into nationwide racial turmoil. This one single mom’s voice is echoed by thousands more just like her across Philadelphia.
After I thanked Khalil’s mom, not just for taking the time to speak with me, but for doing the best she can, she sounded better. I let her know that we missed Khalil when he missed class. His teachers and classmates missed his artwork and insights.
As a school social worker, I assume every student wants to come to school and I assume every parent wants their child to go to school and thrive while there.
What’s missing from schools’ work to curb absenteeism is basic compassion. Families that are struggling the most in figuring out, on-the-fly, how to keep children learning are our families from underserved and marginalized communities.
In focusing on truancy, it’s easy to ignore that our families don’t have disposable income to hire Zoom tutors or organize well-resourced pandemic pods. They don’t have the luxury of working from home while homeschooling their kids. Systems have failed them. Racism reigns.
Yet, we can win against these failures and injustices with concerted compassion. I knew we were starting to build the trust that is so essential to school and family partnership when Khalil’s mom started to open up, telling me that they were having problems getting online. That no one had shown her son how to use the Chromebook, or even how to type.
With a better handle on their real challenges, we got down to solving them. That same day, a teacher walked Khalil through computer setup, and showed him a fun typing program.
We also set up a separate call — not to talk about school or homework, but just a conversation between a young Black boy and a young Black man, one who graduated from college and grad school. About life. How Khalil saw his future. What he wanted to become.
At my school, 99% of the student body are Black boys, yet less than 5% of the educators are Black men. This is unacceptable as research shows white teachers tend to under-expect Black students to achieve academically, while over-disciplining them. Conversely, having just one Black teacher early on drastically improves a Black child’s on-time high school graduation and college matriculation. If they have two, their chances soar.
But being a Black educator and social worker doesn’t mean you always have the right words to say to parents when checking in. What I try to do each time is acknowledge and validate them. I also keep in mind my own mother and my older sister (also a single mom of four). They’ve both done the best they could for me, and it’s made all the difference.
After checking in with Khalil’s mom a couple of times one day, as I said I would, she thanked me, saying: “You helped me get through today.” Helping her get through that day got her son to school the next.
Kenneth Bourne II is the only Black male social worker at an all-boys charter school in Philadelphia. With his colleagues, he’s improved sixth-grade attendance from a little over 25% to above 95%, the highest rate for any grade in his school and better than district averages of just 61% of Philadelphia public school students attending remote learning regularly. He is also the founder and CEO of ANEW, an organization committed to ensuring Black boys and young men have a fair shot at academic achievement and life success.