Room 918: Why is a law-school graduate teaching public school?

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Kojo Asamoa-Caesar teaching children earlier this year. Courtesy

Correction: This story initially incorrectly listed the Tulsa Public Schools 2016 graduation rate.

“What is a black male law school graduate doing as a kindergarten teacher?”

“You are the first in your family to graduate from college, why would you choose to ‘volunteer’ instead of getting a well-paying job?”

“Tulsa? Do black people even live there?”

Those were the befuddled questions I heard from friends and family when I made the decision to forego a career in law and become an educator. I want to answer those questions and then make a case for why others should come join me in this work.

Learn more about Kojo Asamoa-Caesar’s school.

I signed up to teach early childhood education after law school because as a black man, I felt my presence in a space normally occupied by white women could have a unique positive impact on the disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates experienced by our youngest black boys and girls.

I’d also read that if a child wasn’t reading on grade level by the end of third grade, there was a 75 percent chance that they’d never catch up, and thus, third grade reading scores had become a predictor of drop-out rates and the likelihood of future incarceration.

I was born to an immigrant, working-class, single mother who dreamed and toiled in order for me to gain access to good public schools and have the opportunity to reach my full potential. She suffered a stroke from years of stress-filled work the summer before I entered high school. In a very real sense, I am the embodiment of her American dream. But to me, in order for the dream to be real, it has to become a reality for all children.

And to answer the final question above – yes, black people actually live in Tulsa. In fact, the black kids who I have the privilege of educating in north Tulsa are descendants of what used to be the wealthiest African-American community in the nation.

In the early 20th century, blacks living under segregation and Jim Crow laws in Tulsa, but nonetheless propelled by their own entrepreneurial spirit and ingenuity, along with the oil boom of the early 1900s, built the most prominent concentration of Black-owned businesses in the United States. The community, known as Greenwood, came to be commonly called “Black Wall Street.”

I wish I could end the story there – then maybe I could go practice law, earn lots of money, take care of my mom and move to Atlanta where there’s no question about the presence of black people. However, as history would have it, in 1921 – in what came to be known as the Tulsa Race Riot – white residents massacred hundreds of black residents and burned down whole neighborhoods within a matter of hours. The incident was one of the most devastating massacres in the history of U.S. race relations, destroying the once thriving Greenwood community.

That brings us to our present day crisis. Now, in Oklahoma we have a crisis in education, period. So imagine the kind of crisis that exists in education for black children. What’s the saying? When white folks catch a cold, black folks get pneumonia.

In Oklahoma, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, we are ranked 48th in the nation in per pupil funding. In fact, since 2008, no other state has cut more education funding than Oklahoma. These cuts disproportionately affect poor black communities like north Tulsa that already suffer from a dearth of resources in the face of ever growing needs. Tulsa Public Schools, the state’s second largest school district, has a graduation rate of 72 percent, which lags behind the national graduation rate of 83 percent.

The state of crisis extends beyond our schools to the broader community. The Tulsa Health Department reports that, on average, residents of north Tulsa die 11 years earlier than residents living in south Tulsa. To add insult to injury (or early death), Oklahoma incarcerates more people than any other state in the nation except Louisiana. According to data released last year by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Oklahoma incarcerates its white residents at a rate of 740 per 100,000, but incarcerates its black residents at a jaw-dropping rate of 3252 per 100,000.

This is a crisis of monumental proportions, and we need all hands on deck; we need capable and innovative change agents to dedicate their talents to addressing this crisis. This is why organizations like Teach For America and other AmeriCorps programs are so indispensable.

The extremely resilient community in north Tulsa, under the leadership of Pastor Ray Owens ‘90, has come together to begin to tackle these issues in innovative and meaningful ways. Chief among them was to found an organization, called the Met Cares Foundation, which is responsible for raising money and coordinating efforts to revitalize the community and restore the greatness of Black Wall Street.

At the beginning of this year, I was honored to be selected by the Foundation to become the founding principal of a new elementary school that is opening this fall in partnership with Tulsa Public Schools. The school, Greenwood Leadership Academy, will be at the heart of a three-pronged holistic model for community transformation.

The second prong will be an economic development program that will endeavor to build affordable and mixed-income housing, attract grocery stores and cultivate jobs for residents. The third prong will be a community ownership component to ensure that the work is driven, led and owned by the grassroots of the African-American community in north Tulsa.

This innovative holistic model allows us to impact the academic outcomes of kids while also transforming the social and economic outcomes of the community in which they live. It is time we stop demanding that roses grow out of concrete, and instead dedicate our efforts to planting rose gardens where our most precious seeds, our children, can grow and blossom naturally.

They tried to bury us but they didn’t realize we were seeds.

Black Wall Street shall rise again.

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