COVID Anxiety: Overcoming Back to School Challenges

The Context

Learning communities experienced incredible challenges this year due to COVID-19 and the ever-present social unrest in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. While schools continued to be a place of growth and expansion, they also performed as mental and emotional health centers, basic needs shelters, and places of safety and security in recent years. Indeed, many educators would argue such demands were not new to schools—a trend over the last 40 years. Schools have now become a hub for holistic support for students, families, and the community.

Learning communities, a place where students experience exposure to new ideas, diverse perspectives, material that encourages reflection, dynamic experiences, and opportunities to expand and engage in critical thinking.

The situation was further exacerbated by the pandemic, with increasing pressure for educators and staff to shift to the demands of hybrid and online instruction. We supported the emotional, psychological, and physical safety and well-being of students and families; albeit with limited resources and access to do so well. 

In the face of a global pandemic, schools across the country, the Midwest, and the state of Michigan confronted unprecedented challenges during the previous year (2020) and the confrontation continues. Indeed, the year was a difficult experience for the field of education, educators, students, and families; a fact that cannot be overstated.

Beyond COVID Anxiety to Mental Health Stressors

Direct and vicarious trauma, chronic stress, grief and loss, hypervigilance to protect, overwhelming emotionality, heightened levels of anxiety, and increased depression and suicidal ideation are just a few of the many residual effects of the pandemic.

For educators, feelings of loss (both personally and professionally), uncertainty, anxiety, and moral guilt about the educational experience of students and their ability to cope with the increasing demands were palpable. From hybrid instruction to learning virtual platforms to an additional 4 to 7 hours of work each day, educators and students bore the brunt with resilience. Altogether, these stressors, despite resiliency, can cause significant mental health challenges.

Today’s Challenge

As educators, we now stand in the face of a new challenge—returning to in-person school to create a new normal—amidst the delta variant and other variants recently speculated. We’re in the midst of a continuing national increase in COVID cases. In response to this present challenge, Boards of Education, central office leaders, and educators work tirelessly to prepare to educate students in a safe learning environment while continuing to exercise grace and dynamic flexibility to respond to the moment.

However, the fact is that students and staff are struggling to manage their emotional and psychological health and safety. Students and adults report heightened levels of stress, reduced self-management skills, and increased needs for support in schools, especially emotionally. This point is certainly not unique to schools [we know schools are microcosms of broader society and situated within communities]. Still, educators and school leaders must be mindful of the stress within the bodies of the students [and staff] daily entering the school doors. 

Symptoms of COVID Anxiety

As students and staff return to in-person school, studies show one of the most common reactions is anxiety. 

According to Psycom, “Anxiety can have a constellation of symptoms, and no two people experience anxiety in the same way. Some symptoms you might experience can include:

  1. Sleep problems – Are you having trouble falling or staying asleep?
  2. Restlessness
  3. Difficulty with concentration
  4. Constant worrying or intrusive thoughts
  5. Irritability with no obvious cause
  6. Muscle tension
  7. Recurring stomach upset or headaches
  8. Overwhelming fatigue

But what more can schools do to respond to student and staff needs? This is a question with which many educators and leaders grapple. Our capacity to support, protect, and intervene is challenged, but our moral obligation and heart for students, staff, and community prompt us to act—but with what tools? 

Strategies and Solutions for COVID Anxiety

Anxiety can manifest behaviorally, physically, and emotionally in adults and students. Sometimes, anxiety may manifest in aggressive and hypersensitive behavior. Anxiety is normal and common when we face unknown realities, especially in spaces where we feel vulnerable. Research about anxiety in schools provides several coping skills including deep breathing, stress management techniques, positive self-talk, planning, and creating a routine.

These strategies promote self-awareness and self-regulation, increasing an individual’s ability to effectively engage with others and the material they’re studying in the classroom. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, Emotional Learning (CASEL), a national resource for schools interested in best practices for social-emotional learning (SEL) implementation, provides specific competencies for students. These skills are beneficial to students, but also to staff. 

Understanding COVID Anxiety and Coping Strategies

In collaboration with our team, U Prep has provided the network with a resource to better understand anxiety and identify strategies for self-care and working with students using SEL principles. 

Indeed, this past year has been an exercise in understanding, developing, and implementing coping strategies reflective of social-emotional competencies (i.e., mindset, critical thinking, self-awareness, social awareness, and regulation) and increased awareness of social-emotional health. These skills are important buffers when dealing with increased stressors and will prove useful in this next chapter; this new normal. 

One primary antidote to anxiety [newness] is connectedness. Let’s practice our norms of collaboration and connection to create conditions for teaching and learning that are responsive to the human experience—normalizing the reactions of our colleagues and students and leaning in together to reduce the anxiety we all may feel.

Reaching Out for Help for COVID Anxiety

We encourage you to seek out help if you require support. Please understand that you are not alone and exercise patience with yourself and with your students, but more importantly, be consistent, flexible, and validating.

As a mental health clinician, raising awareness of these tools and strategies has become a strong goal of mine. While most adults think of the end-user for all resources as the students, I tend to think about conditions for teaching and learning, which opens the door for a focus on the people who help the people.

The adults in the schools require an intentional support mechanism that acknowledges their struggles and challenges as human beings and how this might manifest in the workplace. The current trend is wellness, but for people like me, the trend is not what sets the tone. It is the fundamental belief that promoting holistic and well-balanced wellness is a life’s work.

Without wellness, one cannot fully become the best version of themselves. It is with this belief and the alignment between my values and the mission and vision of U Prep that our collaboration makes sense. I am excited to partner with U Prep Schools and the mission and vision of the leadership to create conditions for learning that integrates restorative practices and wellness/SEL to support outcomes for adults and students. 1) Educator wellness, 2) adult competencies, and 3) student outcomes—creating holistic wellness for all.

Let’s get to work! 

Our Author

Dr. Karlin Tichenor, Founder, and CEO of Karlin J & Associates, LLC is the lead consultant for Educator Wellness and Social-Emotional Learning for U Prep Schools. He is an expert clinical scholar and practitioner. He is an adjunct professor at Butler University and Abilene Christian University (Dallas), the Co-Owner and Senior Partner of Family Links, LLC, a statewide social services agency, and a graduate of Denison University and Michigan State University with degrees in Communications and Psychology, Marriage and Family Therapy, and Human Development and Family Studies. He is also the previous Associate Superintendent of School Culture in the Lansing School District (MI).  

COVID and Education at Our Inner-City Schools

As the COVID pandemic unfolded, every family and employer in America suddenly realized how deeply their lives and livelihoods depended on the nation’s education systems. With almost no notice, school buildings shut down. Families and educators suddenly found themselves in the middle of a massive national experiment in new ways of teaching and learning, and new obligations of dividing responsibilities between home, school, and work. 

Remembering the Beginning of COVID and Its Early Impact on Education

Last spring, there was a pivotal moment when I realized that COVID would change the way schools and education systems operated for years to come. I remember I was in Flint, Michigan, serving in the education system on behalf of a community that had already suffered tremendous hardship with the water crisis. While still dealing with the residuals from that tragedy, COVID hit. The pandemic had proven to affect underserved communities substantially, but Flint was not only underserved; they were embroiled in a current health crisis that had already shaken their community to its core. And now this! 

The way the pandemic engulfed our society exposed how deeply inequity shapes the experiences and outcomes of children of color and low-income families who are disproportionately impacted. Like most inner-city school entities, we shut down for a period to restructure. 

We made plans to serve the families and staff best and keep all safe – ensuring all children continued to learn regardless of their access to technology. Remember those thick learning packets? Many inner-city schools ventured this route – then, online learning. Multiple families did not have the resources needed to support their child’s remote education. The passing of the government stimulus packages included funding for devices and internet services for schools and families. Students received their Chromebooks, hot spots, etc. – upgrading their access to 1:1 with technology – bridging the digital divide. 

It was clear that the hard work was ahead – COVID extending learning, preparedness and response plans, meal distribution to families,  and training for educators to facilitate effective and engaging teaching and learning.  There was no quick fix or blueprint. It was uncharted territory – a reckoning, but together, as a unit, we made the best decisions we could, considering the circumstances, and created structures that best fit the needs of our entire community. We adapted, innovated, and transformed our lives and school systems.

A year later, it is clear that the pandemic that abruptly took siege of our lives and devastated our communities has changed education in America in lasting ways. The unprecedented 16-month battle with the pandemic unleashed a wave of innovation – remote learning, discovering new ways to spark students’ creativity, harnessing technology, and providing the services students and schools need to succeed. Correspondingly, the significant negative impact on our health and wellness continues.

What We Know About COVID

On February 11, 2020, the World Health Organization announced an official name for Coronavirus Disease 2019, abbreviated COVID-19. CO stands for corona, VI for virus, and D for disease. The virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, is a coronavirus. The word corona means crown and refers to coronaviruses’ appearance from the spike proteins sticking out of them. 

COVID-19 is a highly contagious and potentially fatal disease discovered in Wuhan, China, in December of 2019. It is caused by a virus that spreads rapidly and did so globally in a very short time. The most common symptoms that the virus causes are respiratory and mirror those similar to a cold, the flu, or pneumonia.

COVID Fast Facts:

  • Most patients who contract COVID-19 suffer from mild symptoms. However, in extreme cases, others become severely ill.
  • The elderly or patients who struggle with specific underlying medical challenges are at an increased risk of falling victim to severe illness from the virus. 
  • The United States has experienced overwhelming loss and fatalities due to complications from this aggressive virus.
  • The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that vaccines against COVID-19 are safe and effective.
  • The broad spread of vaccination is critical to begin the process of putting an end to the pandemic.
  • The CDC now recommends that people whose immune systems are compromised – moderately to severely – receive an additional dose of mRNA COVID-19 vaccine after two initial doses.

COVID and Fatalities in Our Community

As defined by the CDC, health equity is when all members of society enjoy a fair and just opportunity to be as healthy as possible. Public health policies and programs centered around the specific needs of communities can promote health equity. 

The pandemic has hovered a magnifying glass over so many of our country’s issues. Still, the most prominent is the health disparities within the underserved inner-city communities – those where the population is predominantly black and brown. Sadly, poverty and access to quality health care are related in underserved communities, and studies have shown that these factors have a significant negative impact on their health and wellness.

Certainly, COVID has rocked our nation as a whole, and in some cases, even brought us to our knees, collectively. At the same time, the threat of a pandemic only compounds the problem in communities where extreme disparities in education, housing, and access to health care already exist. The reality that black and brown populations are disproportionately represented among essential workers and industries, some experts have suggested, might be contributing to the racial and ethnic health disparities at the forefront of this disease. 

Nevertheless, inner cities always rise like the Phoenix and prove to be resilient, unified, and resourceful. Detroit is that city! We erected COVID testing and, later, vaccination stations across the city for residents to receive quality care and access. Churches, schools, community centers, and nonprofits joined in the fight and offered their buildings as sites for the public to ensure equity for their community. Finally, when schools received clearance to participate in the effort, U Prep was one of the first and continues to act as a resource for its families, staff, and community. 

U Prep’s Heart in the Fight Against COVID

It is an honor to work alongside an incredible group of professionals who lead with courage and a heart-first mentality. Before I became a member of the U Prep Crew, I was first a U Prep Parent, so I have been a long-time member of the U Prep family. As a parent, I believed the school entity cared about my children and their academic success. My appreciation for the overall network increased tremendously through the pandemic. 

Before joining the team, I engaged in the weekly parent surveys that upper management distributed system-wide. To see some of our comments and concerns translate to changes in processes and procedures to ensure the best for my children, specifically, reaffirmed my confidence in and commitment to U Prep Schools. My voice as a parent mattered. 

Upon joining the U Prep Crew this year, as a member of the Senior Leadership Team at Home Office the authenticity, transparency to families and staff, and core values were and continue to be demonstrated at inexplicable levels. 

All of us have had our lives upended by the coronavirus. Yet, we remain passionate about educating our scholars and preparing them for success and a future full of possibilities! Like many other school entities, U Prep Schools is preparing for the return of students to a new school year amid a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the Delta variant and sluggish vaccination rates across Michigan and the United States.

This fall, we welcome our scholars and crew back to the classroom, reuniting with them for in-person learning, which, for some children, will be their first time in the school building since the pandemic. While reopening will undoubtedly look different this year, one thing is clear: sound operational management of the reopening process will be critical to building public confidence and ensuring our student’s and crew’s success.

We learned from COVID and education is that preparedness is crucial. The experience provided an opportunity to introduce new learning modes to reach every student, prepare for emergencies more effectively, and make systems and structures more resilient. I have the privilege of serving as the senior executive director overseeing operations for U Prep Schools. 

I often work behind the scenes, coordinating services and support of multiple operating departments, developing plans, procedures, and protocols for our scholars and crew. Leadership, collaboration, and communications within and across major operational and academic departments have never been more important to ensure a smooth reopening process and to safeguard the welfare of our students and crew upon return to the school buildings and through the school year. 

Although I have worked in this capacity throughout my career, the heart work and lean-in on empathy, culture, relationship building, teamwork, intention, and transparency – at all cost – is restorative and well-aligned with my personal and professional mission to offer the very best services, support, and equity to our community. 

U Prep teachers wearing masks, expressing their enthusiasm for education, even during COVID.
We have had our lives upended by COVID. Yet, we remain passionate about educating our scholars and preparing them for success and a future full of possibilities!

Moreover, as the U Prep’s Operations Department leader, it is our priority to provide easy and quality access to education to our families and those in the community surrounding all of our school campuses. This imperative is the anchor of effective and successful operations, especially this fall when schools are likely to look much different from before. The following are highlights of COVID actions that our education community has taken to ensure the safety and establish a climate of awareness to achieve the best results during the reopening of schools this fall and throughout the school year: 

COVID TESTING & VACCINATION. We initiated an inquiry to establish ourselves as a site for COVID testing and later vaccination administration. Every Wednesday, in partnership with Wayne Health between the hours of 4:00 pm and 8:00 pm, our UPA High School campus continues to serve as an onsite COVID Testing and Vaccination Clinic to U Prep families, staff, and the community at large. Individuals ages 12 and up can receive the vaccine on-site via walk-up or drive-up at no cost. Parents must be present to sign a consent form for minors, and proper identification is required for adults. Qualified health care professionals from Wayne Health administer the vaccine in a safe, secluded area. 

OPENING FACILITIES, SCHOOLS & CLASSROOMS. Our facilities team took early precautions as we began planning for in-person learning for the last quarter of this past school year and enhancement in preparation for our return to entirely in-person in the Fall. Investments in proper PPE equipment and standard sanitizing procedures in line with CDC regulations were established; modifications to our HVAC systems and the installation of refillable water stations, and a myriad of new COVID in education settings protocols and procedures were created for optimal safety of our scholars and staff. 

TECHNOLOGY SUPPORT & RESOURCES. We distributed Chromebooks to all scholars who desired a device, upgrading their access to 1:1 with technology. Security, collaboration tools, and network connectivity become top-of-mind. We ensured adequate security controls in place, including upgrades to multi-factor authentication and email security. Finally, we help educators, scholars, and their families by providing training and clear, easy-to-understand support for a connected, swift, and reliable experience. COVID will not get in the way of our scholars’ education.

COMMUNICATIONS, MESSAGING, AND CHANGE MANAGEMENT. We remained committed to our promise of transparency and inclusion and offered the space for parent and staff voices throughout this journey. Weekly communications to our families and crew were distributed that included updates on positive COVID reports and up-to-date staff vaccination data. We encourage crew, scholars, and their families to participate in and comply with new procedures and practices. The latest update from U Prep Schools’ CEO, Mrs. Danielle Jackson, can be found here.

COVID and the U Prep Education Community

Finally, as we prepare to come back together again, as one school community, we do so with the understanding that we all carry apprehension based on our own life experiences and trauma from the COVID epidemic.  I am confident, however, that we – as the U Prep community – will continue to wrap our (socially distanced) arms around one another with intention and compassion that will result in overall academic excellence for every U Prep scholar. 

Author: Cassandra Washington is the Senior Executive Director of Operations at Home Office for U Prep Schools. She has dedicated her career to providing safe spaces for children to learn, develop and create. She is a graduate of Davenport University, where she earned her EMBA in executive management and leadership and undergraduate degrees in human resource management and school business management. She is one of the newest members of the Home Office Senior Leadership Team, who comes with over 20 years of experience in Human Resource and Operations management. Her greatest reward is being a U Prep parent for eight years and counting

School Uniforms Don’t Have to Exist: Reimagining the Landscape at U Prep

Allowing students to wear spirit wear instead of school uniforms, reflects their school pride, instead of forcing them to look alike, feel policed and under guard; denotes freedom of expression; and creates a community of trust from student to school leaders and staff.

Change is necessary.

Approximately five or six years ago, high school students from two of our districts challenged our leadership with our said vision and mission to develop self-expression and innovative academic mindsets, thereby developing the independent learner. Liberating our students and developing independent thinkers and learners is what we strive to do at U Prep Schools. We not only welcome student voice; we actually value it. Their ask was if Leadership might consider relaxing the dress code, allowing them to activate their freedom of expression and liberation in all tenets of their learning experience. 

When I was asked to contribute to our monthly CEO Blog with the topic surrounding our decision to move away from school uniforms at the high school level, my initial and very direct thought was, “school uniforms are disproportionately required in low income or urban schools, where the population is predominantly comprised of black and brown children.” I am aware, however, that the history and implications of school uniforms are far more nuanced than that and deserve in-depth language to support my very informed, yet, opinion. If I may have just a few minutes of your time, I’d like to walk you through the history of traditional school uniforms, dispelling the myths that followed, and U Prep’s charge to change.

The History of School Uniforms

We can trace school uniforms back to the mid-1800s when the first Native American Boarding School came into existence on the Yakima Reservation in the State of Washington. European immigrants traveled from the east coast to the west to begin colonizing the native people in very intentional ways, beginning with strict boarding schools. Per the American Indian Relief Council, the goal of the boarding schools was to “use education as a tool to “assimilate” Indian tribes into the mainstream of the “American way of life,” a Protestant ideology of the mid-19th century. The reformers assumed that it was necessary to “civilize” the native Indian, and make them accept European, white male-dominated beliefs and value systems. In other words, the goal was to destroy Native American culture in favor of the new “American way.”

By the 1880s, there were more than sixty of these boarding schools promoting the “prized values of white society”: order, discipline, and self-restraint. In 1879, the most well-known boarding school opened in Pennsylvania, The Carlisle School. The motto for the Carlisle School was “Kill the Indian, save the man”. The typical student was between the ages of 14-18, although some were much younger. The institution sought to do away with all outward signs of tribal life that the children brought with them. The long braids worn by Indian boys were cut off.  Boys and girls were segregated by gender, and forced to wear school uniforms mandated by the school’s leadership. Boys wore military-style uniforms and the girls had European-style dresses.

The students were given new European names, including surnames. Traditional Native foods were abandoned, forcing students to acquire the food rites of white society. In addition, students were forbidden to speak their Native languages, even to each other. SOUND FAMILIAR? The Carlisle school rewarded those who refrained from speaking their own language; most other boarding schools relied on punishment to achieve this “aim”.

The expectation of the school to its graduates was that they serve as models upon returning to their reservations. Instead, the Carlisle students returned adrift, trained for jobs that did not exist, ostracized by their peers, and still victimized by white prejudices.

School Uniforms in Urban Schools

Now, let’s fast forward 110 years or so to the mid-1990s, when former then Presidential Candidate Bill Clinton reintroduced the idea of school uniforms in “low-performing” (urban) schools as a key focus during his campaign. President Clinton leveraged a rash of violent crimes that were allegedly committed over designer clothing to push his school uniform agenda. A 1996 New York Times article captured this quote from President Clinton: “It’s tragic when young people without a balanced upbringing, without grounded values, without a secure education, wind up believing that it’s alright to kill somebody for a pair of sneakers or jewelry or a designer jacket.”

My query following his statement, like many intellectuals in this work for improving the educational experience for all children, was, “How do school uniforms solve the systemic issues in America that lead to black and brown youth disproportionately experiencing ‘unbalanced upbringings, no grounded values, or insecure education”? Perhaps you are now beginning to recognize the myth behind the mandate of school uniforms, particularly in underserved communities.

The reality? School Uniforms have never proven to influence student achievement or behavior. I believe the misconception of some parents, derived from their child’s school mandating a uniform, is the belief that their child attended a “good school.”

U Prep’s Charge to Change

In the Summer of 2020, as part of our network’s Culturally Responsive Education training, our senior leadership led professional development sessions for all school leadership teams with the guiding text, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome by Dr. Joy DeGruy. The text introduced the idea that African Americans suffer from something called Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome or PTSS which focuses on three concepts:

  • Vacant esteem
  • Ever-present anger
  • Racist socialization

For the purpose of this post, I’ll focus on Racist Socialization. Dr. DeGruy writes that “many of us have adopted the attitudes and views of a white, racist America. Many of us see ourselves, and our community through a European, or white, lens. We both mold ourselves to accommodate white prejudices and endeavor to adopt their standards.”

This manifests itself in a myriad of ways. Many African Americans have adopted white standards, including those of beauty and material success, as well as violence and brutality. “School uniforms are a very clear example of a beauty and material standard created from the lens of white people and largely accepted by black people. The violence that allegedly inspired school uniforms can also be directly attributed to the same violence white people have inflicted upon communities of color since the birth of this nation.” 

At U Prep, we seek to develop the critical thinker and innovative problem solver who recognizes a community challenge and offers solutions to ultimately improve the whole. This is a paradigm shift and one that follows our practice of culturally responsive teaching and learning. Allowing our students to walk the halls in spirit wear that reflects their school pride, instead of strict or conservative outerwear that forces them to look alike or feel policed and under guard, denotes freedom of expression, builds school pride and creates a community of trust from student to school leaders and staff. We are a community in every way!

Author: Jerry Lawrence is the Assistant School Director at UPA High School. He has dedicated his career to improving the lives of black and brown children both on the East and West coasts. Jerry is a graduate of the University of Maryland – Baltimore County, where he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Social Work. He received a Masters in Educational Leadership from Grand Valley State University. Jerry has been with the U Prep Schools network for six years and has served as the Internship Coordinator, Dean of Culture, Assistant School Director of Culture, and now the Assistant School Director of the 11th and 12th grade.

Jerry Lawrence, U Prep Assistant School Director of the 11th and 12th grade

Liberation Through Education: Part III

Culturally Responsive Education: Reflection – Beyond the School Walls

When we incorporate Culturally-Responsive Education (CRE) into our counseling practice, we begin to create counternarratives. A more culturally responsive approach to college counseling and access, that refrains from a deficit viewpoint and considers the contextual needs, cultural knowledge, and assets our students embody, will help them realize their college aspirations and career goals.

Looking Back to Move Forward: Over the last couple of weeks, I have experienced some very proud and exciting moments. As I scrolled through my social media pages, I saw so many of my former students graduating from college. It was exciting because they were all students from my first class as a counselor at University Prep Art & Design (UPAD). For the past six years, I have had the pleasure of supporting the graduating classes at UPAD with developing plans to help them reach their postsecondary goals. As a college coordinator, I have the distinct role of navigating students through the complicated process of filling out college applications, financial aid, scholarships, housing applications, and much more. Above all, however, I believe my biggest responsibility in this role is to help students believe that they can reach their dreams. It is an honor and more than a job to me, it’s my passion. 

As I draw close to the end of my sixth year in this role I reflect back to my first year as a college coordinator. I had the goal of being a hero who would come in and save students by getting them out the hood and into college. I had my checklist of items that I needed each student to do: 

  • College Acceptance Letter: CHECK 
  • FASFA Completed: CHECK 
  • Scholarship: CHECK 
  • Choosing Your College and Orientation Date: CHECK 

It was near the end of my very first year. I was going through my checklist with each student, and came across a student who hadn’t made his official college decision. This was weird to me because we had met several times and decided on a school that matched perfectly to his needs both academically and financially. I angrily called him to my office so that we could discuss his procrastination. I had an entire speech in my head of what I would say to him “YOU ARE GOING TO MISS OUT ON THIS OPPORTUNITY!” “YOU HAVE TO DO BETTER!” and my all time favorite “YOU CAN’T APPROACH THE REAL WORLD LIKE THIS!”

When the student walked into my office I wasted no time in questioning him. “WHY HAVEN’T YOU PAID YOUR DEPOSIT AND SIGNED UP FOR ORIENTATION?!” The student looked at me as if he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. He paused and said, “Mr. Johnson, I… AM… SCARED”. My anger instantly turned into disappointment. Not toward him but disappointment toward myself. In my attempt to be a hero, I never took the time to listen to what he may be going through. In our many meetings over the years, he always came across as confident and sure of himself but today, he was a student who needed someone to listen and validate him. 

He talked and I listened for over two hours and he shared with me that he was the first in his family to go to college, and that he was afraid that he would let his family down if he didn’t make it to graduation, and that he had never been away from home. The part that broke my heart is when he told me, “I don’t know if I am good enough.” My instant reply was, “What if you are good enough, and what if you do make it.” He responded with, “I never looked at it that way.” As we finished our discussion, we signed him up for orientation and I gave him a hug and assured him that he would be alright. 

That conversation was transformational for me because it made me change my entire approach to this work. In the words of Tina Turner “We don’t need another HERO” (I just aged myself ) Our students needed someone who could relate, support and validate their experience.  

Culturally Responsive Education and College Counseling 

When we think about Culturally Responsive Education, we often do so in relation to students’ experience in the classroom. There is not enough conversation surrounding CRE in counseling practices. I can make a case that CRE  is just as important when counseling students. Our students grow up in a world that tells them: 

  • Because they are black, their lives don’t matter 
  • Because they are from Detroit, they are less than 
  • Because they come from low and working-class backgrounds, they can’t achieve. 

When we incorporate CRE into our counseling practice, we begin to create counternarratives to the aforementioned views. I suggest a more culturally responsive approach to college counseling and access that refrains from a deficit viewpoint and considers the contextual needs, cultural knowledge, and assets our students embody to realize their college aspirations and career goals. Too often, when we measure college readiness, we do so based on white middle-class students as the dominant measure for academic and personal standards to determine if a student can succeed in their pursuit of college and life.

However, our students have gained a specific set of skills and resilience that has allowed them to survive and thrive in Detroit when it was at its worst. That same resilience can be translated to their success in college and beyond. Dr. Shaun R. Harper Provost Professor in the Rossier School of Education and Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California discusses this in his presentation “This too is Racist” When we devalue the experience and capabilities of Black students, we are committing to racist behaviors. To overcome this, we have to tell our students that their lived cultural experience matters and is valued. In addition, we also have to help our students unpack the cultural experiences they have and translate them into tools to help them reach their personal and professional goals. 

Taking a New Approach

I decided to transform the approach I would take as a counselor and take a more culturally responsive approach. I had to move away from being a hero and take on more of a restorative approach. I remember Dr. Chris Emdin calls it “ Restoration over Rescue Mission”. With that in mind I decided to approach this in three different ways.  

  1. Listen: Often, our students are told to be “seen and not heard.” I have to create more opportunities for students to express their fears, concerns, and experiences. We can’t help students until we understand them; we can’t understand them till we listen to them.
  1. Student-Centered: Move away from my own personal objectives when meeting with students. Allow them the opportunity to discuss their needs, goals, and plans and respond and support appropriately. Remember that each student is different and requires a unique approach.  Instead of looking at their experiences as setbacks and deficiencies, we must help them understand those experiences are tools that have helped them grow personally and professionally. Help them translate how those experiences can lead to their success in college, career, and beyond. 
  1. Empower: Students should walk away from counseling and coaching sessions empowered to reach their goals. Many students are victims of oppression and racism and may need the motivation to move forward.  Before students leave high school and transition into the next stage of their life,  they should have a positive self-appraisal of themself (self-actualization). They should believe in themselves and know that they can achieve any goal they set for themselves, despite the obstacles and experiences of their past. 
  1. Love: Our students deserve to be loved. I charge every educator to move away from robotic interactions with student and instead approach students with love and their well-being 

What CRE Means to Me

The thing that I had to learn as a counselor is that I had to meet the needs of the students and not my own objective. Access to a college education is not enough. TOO many of my students feel that they won’t make it in college because they feel they are not good enough or because they feel they don’t deserve it. As educators we have to provide students with the tools and self assurance to deal with the pain of fundamentally being disempowered and oppressed.

When we liberate students through education, we create students that transform and do not conform. But we must be careful in our approach because education in the past (in some cases currently) has been used as a tool to oppress communities of color. This is why providing students with a culturally relevant education is paramount. By infusing CRE, we can create conscious and self-empowered individuals who use their educated voice for themselves and their community. He/she uses that educated mind to disrupt and dismantle systems of oppression and inequities to create a better world for us all. 

As I was scrolling through my social media and seeing each of my former students in their college cap and gowns, I ran across the student I mentioned earlier. There he stood with his Cap and Gown on and a caption that said, “I DID IT” I enthusiastically sent him a message that said, “Congratulations, Bro, I’m proud of you. If you need anything, call me.” Within an hour, my phone rang, and it was him. He said, “I don’t need anything. I just had to say thank you for everything, it was a hard journey, but I did it!” With a huge smile, I replied, “it was my pleasure, Brotha!” 

Author: John Johnson is the College Coordinator at University Prep Art & Design. He has over 12 years of experience helping students to and through college working at both the high school and collegiate levels. He graduated from Michigan State University, where he earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Mass Communications. He also has a Masters’s Degree in Education & Training. He is a 2020 Detroit New Leader Council Fellow and currently a 2021 San Diego State University Equity in College Counseling Fellow. In 2020 he was awarded the Influential Educator Award by the Michigan Chronicle, and most recently, the 2021 Fred Martin/Coleman A. Young Educator of the Year. 

John Johnson, College Coordinator at University Prep Art & Design High School
John Johnson, College Coordinator at University Prep Art & Design High School

Liberation Through Education – Part II: Self-Actualization

“You are your best thing.” – Toni Morrison

Liberation Through Education – Self-Actualization

As we set in motion the journey of discovery to Liberation Through Education, It is important to highlight the tenet, self-actualization. By definition, it is the realization or fulfillment of one’s talents and potentialities, especially considered as a drive or need present in everyone. Vice President Kamala Harris, Representative Stacy Abrams, Activist Tamika Mallory, and artists such as Beyonce and the late Chadwick Boseman – all courageous, confident, creative and exceptional in their craft. Each has/had their own vision of what it means to be excellent; they have advanced to the position of being self-aware, confident and enough. All – by example – are self-actualized individuals. 

It’s Practical

Most can identify someone whom we believe is living up to his or her own full potential, talents, and gifts. Fulfilling that excellence is a need present in everyone. This concept of self-actualization comes from the First Nations People and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Although debated whether the steps in Maslow’s pyramid are attainable for all, given disparities from one community to the next, the concept of being one’s best self is universal. Educator and Author, Dr. Chris Emdin speaks to self-actualization, as he walks down his experience from childhood to education, during his TED talk, Teaching & Being Rachetdemic. He also introduced the concept to the U Prep crew during a professional development session, where he facilitated, and left us with affirmations he titled, The Seven Rights of the Body

Some come to realize self-actualization in spite of rather than with the support of others, and sometimes those others are educators and/or school communities. To better illustrate, and because I am a lover of music, let’s revisit the lyrics from the late, Notorious B.I.G., “this album is dedicated to all the teachers that told me I would never amount to nothin”. Biggie’s discovery came in spite of the declaration that not only would he never reach his pinnacle, but the implication was that self-actualization in their eyes (his teachers) was not even attainable for him. As a community, U Prep Schools is committed to being the ones who support students in self-actualization.

Self-Actualization Through Education at U Prep

While in high school, it was a teacher who helped guide me toward my revelation of self-actualization. During my time as Principal at UPA High, we had an old saying, “one student at a time,” which illustrated a belief in the importance of every child who joined our community and how important each of them was. We understood that children were not blank slates; they were beings in and of themselves, shaped by their own self-values as well as the pressures of the world. This is who we have always been: a community that believes in every child realizing their own vision of excellence. 

As educators and ones whom families entrust to provide the very best to their child, it is our job to realize and remove barriers that keep our scholars from self-actualizing. U Prep Schools is taking a deep dive into and researching what/who those barriers might be and actively removing them. Arriving at self-actualization comes as a result of the residuals from relationships, relevance, and responsibility, according to Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade, Ethnic Studies Professor at San Francisco State University, Co-Founder Community Responsive Education (CRE) and Roses in Concrete Community School. This is why those three concepts are part of our Pillars of Culturally Responsive Education: Culture of High Expectations, Culturally Responsive Teaching, and Restorative Practices. 

Have you seen the movie, Soul? I watched it with my family over the holiday last year. The lead character, Joe Gardner voiced by Jamie Foxx, is a middle school band teacher in NYC public schools, who is not satisfied with his life until he gets a gig with a jazz artist who he greatly admires. While I’m not too fond of the fact that the movie paints teaching as an unrewarding and not-so-glamorous profession at first, it does illustrate what it means to be a self-actualized human. Without spoiling the movie for you, if you haven’t seen it, Joe Garner had an – albeit somewhat limited – idea or vision of who he wanted to be in life. Over the course of the movie we get to see his self-actualization unfold. 

Self-actualization is paramount. It illustrates a belief in self-love, which ultimately leads to a greater understanding of others – empathy, which strengthens communities, cultures, and society as a whole. While we lean into these pillars and to the belief in the importance of all of our children self-actualizing, I fully expect to add the names of our scholars to those I began with, as community leaders, organizers, and international influencers who change their world. This will be because of the U Prep community, not in spite of it.

Danielle Jackson, CEO of U Prep Schools/Detroit 90/90
Danielle Jackson, CEO of U Prep Schools/Detroit 90/90

Author: Danielle Jackson is the CEO of Detroit 90/90, and U Prep Schools. She is a veteran educator with over 20-years of experience in the classroom, as well as school and executive leadership. A proud graduate of Wayne State University, Mrs. Jackson received both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from the exemplary institution. She has been a member of the U Prep community for 14-years, where she previously served in the roles of Principal and Chief Academic Officer before transitioning into the esteemed role as leader of the U Prep network. 

Culturally Responsive Education Informs Our Practice

We are celebrating our 20th year of serving families in Detroit. Our investment in innovation and transformation plays a pivotal role in our scholars’ success. In honor of that, we are launching U Prep’s first blog, “The U Crew Collective”. I have the pleasure of celebrating a phenomenal crew as they showcase lessons learned, how we respond to new challenges, and ways we celebrate our scholars’ brilliance. I hope you find helpful information, resources you can use right now, topics that generate dialogue about your practice here or in your school, or inspiration in your pursuit of excellence in educating our children.

In our inaugural post, I have asked Dr. Curtis Lewis to share how Culturally Responsive Education informs his leadership as Chief of Teaching and Learning and our collective work at U Prep Schools.

Liberation Through Education
Part I – CRE is a Life-long Commitment

Culturally Responsive Education – An Epiphany

Over the span of my career I have researched and examined best practices, led case studies and collected data, all for the purpose of discovering the premier practice, tool, and strategy necessary to provide the highest quality education to black and brown children, thereby changing the narrative of their unexpected success and prominence in the world.

In my quest, and early on in my teaching career I was introduced to components of Culturally Responsive Teaching. It was refreshing and brought self assurance to my work when I learned that there was an actual concept that described my contemporary practice and belief system for educating children. My life’s mission has always been to transform the education system and make it equitable for all children. Even in my early days as an elementary school teacher, I was determined to convert students from dependent to independent learners, and empower them by stretching their intellectual capacity and holding high expectations. Knowing that there was a practice – Culturally Responsive Education (CRE) – and a description attached to my way of educating youth, particularly, in inner city communities, was invigorating!

A Shared Vision

I have studied, and have proven success with CRE in the K-12 space, and over the years I have partnered with like-missioned organizations and individuals who share my same passion for this work. Researchers, fellow educators and philosophers such as Dr. David Kirland, Executive Director of The NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and The Transformation of Schools, and the late Khalilah Brann, Founder of Culturally Responsive Educators of African Diaspora (CREADnyc) collaborated with me during my years as an elementary, middle and high school principal at the now, U Prep Art & Design district. Together, we trained teachers and school staff in the concept and practice of Culturally Responsive Education. Today across all U Prep Schools, it continues to be our collective focus and is ingrained in our academic vision. Innovation and intentionality is necessary in the transformation of learning communities. Finally, this concept has emerged at the forefront of educational conversations and research. I would caution any leader in understanding that it – CRE – is not a quick shift; it is an evolution that takes time. We, at U Prep are dedicated to expanding our proven success across our network of schools, and we are invested in this long term approach to providing quality to our scholars.

At U Prep Schools we describe Cultural Responsiveness is not simply a practice; it is what informs our practice and allows us to make better choices for eliciting, engaging, motivating, supporting, and expanding the intellectual capacity of all students. Culturally Responsive pedagogies and practices examine instructional philosophy and practice critically, both acknowledging and searching for the presence of historical forms of oppression embedded in curriculum, instruction, policy and approaches to teacher-student relationships. (Adopted from NYU’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity & the Transformation of Schools)

Key Components in Activating the Practice

At U Prep Schools we lead our network of teaching and school leadership staff through the concepts outlined in author Zaretta Hammond’s text, Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain. Collectively, our educators have been developed and have learned that within instruction, CRE comprises both what is taught and how it is taught. CRE is expanding and enhancing materials to include learning a broader scope of the nation’s collective culture – specific to our school community – this means emphasizing teaching about Africa and the contributions and culture of African-descendants. It serves to honor the learning styles and the culture of the population we serve through our specific teaching practices.

It is imperative that I take a pause to highlight the importance of providing a safe space within CRE for teachers to activate vulnerability in order to address unconscious biases that may otherwise affect their expectations of student performance and their ability to develop as a culturally responsive educator.

As a practice, culturally responsive education is not as simple as infusing pieces from one’s culture from time-to-time, but it is allowing individuals to see themselves in the teaching and learning, and overall culture of the school. This means that school discipline must be culturally responsive as well – it must match the learning – and staff must have a shared belief in this mindset. Restorative Practices is a key element, and driving force for building school culture and community. It is social science that derives from the practice, Restorative Justice (RJ). An emerging field within the justice system, RJ embodies a set of principles designed to mediate conflict, strengthen community, and repair harm. Dr. Fania Davis, a leading national voice in this movement, challenges legal minds by inviting this fundamental shift in the way they think about and do justice. Through the execution of Restorative Practices, at U Prep Schools our scholars are provided a safe space to resolve conflict. They are equipped with techniques to ensure that all person-to-person interactions are respectful and productive. The practice serves to repair and restore, which contributes to the development of a community oriented school culture.

As a veteran educator I have witnessed the positive effects of engaging students through a culturally responsive education. Mindsets shift, a sense of belonging emerges, and academic achievement is attained. Children who may have once found school and its concepts too difficult to comprehend, later discover themselves excelling in rigor and exceeding high expectations. Because of the results I’ve researched, and from experiencing proven results from CRE concepts, I believe in this work; I am driven by this work, and our children deserve this level of intentionality and diligence from educational leaders whom their parents entrust to design their educational path.

Liberation Through Education

Join us on this journey of discovery of “liberation through education” in a three-part blog series. Next month, we will take a deep dive into how CRE translates into self actualization for students. The final entry in this series will examine the positive effects CRE has on scholars in college, career and future life goals. CRE is a life-long commitment that will improve student outcomes and transform the landscape of education.

Dr. Curtis Lewis is the Chief of Teaching and Learning at U Prep Schools. He is veteran educator with over 20-years of experience in the classroom and educational leadership in the elementary, midde, high school, alternative, and collegiate levels. He is a graduate of Michigan State University where he earned his Bachelors, Masters and Doctorate of Philosophy in Curriculum Teaching and Educational Policy. He has been a member of the U Prep and PSAD community for nine years, both as a founding Principal and school leader for the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies K-12 District, and as the Executive Director of Curriculum & Instruction.