Comments by Waco ISD Superintendent Bonny Cain and school board trustees Angela Tekell and Pat Atkins in an interview which appeared in the Trib on Jan. 17 [“Betting on vibrant, healthy neighborhoods to produce vibrant, healthy schools”] were offensive, insulting and condescending. Cain, Tekell and Atkins evinced unfounded generalizations, negative stereotypes and demonization of parents, students and the community Waco ISD is supposed to serve. Additionally, the comments of school board trustee Larry Perez at last Thursday’s school board meeting were equally offensive.
Tekell’s comment about the students and parents at J.H. Hines Elementary and Brook Avenue Elementary posing a “community problem” represents the condescending attitude prevalent throughout the interview. These children, their parents and their neighborhoods are not a problem to be fixed; they are a community that should be engaged and respected.
While Cain, Tekell and Atkins touted the possible participation of organizations, they gave short-shrift to the involvement of parents, choosing instead to posit negative generalizations and stereotypes about those who live in poverty. They blamed parents for their poverty, characterized them as dysfunctional and demonized them as irresponsible. Poverty is real and it does negatively affect students’ performance in school. However, poverty is not a crime and it is not a moral failing. Nor is it a criminal matter as Perez seems to suggest.
Superintendent Cain’s offensive characterization of parents as lacking in parenting skills or even the desire to be good parents was bad enough. However, she went further, accusing them of neglect, promiscuity and theft.
Waco ISD board president Pat Atkins’ offensive characterization of “folks who are in abject poverty and living in the housing projects” was no better. And Hines Elementary principal Tra Hall’s perception of his students’ culture as “one of abuse, trauma and neglect” (as quoted by Atkins) was appalling. Such unfounded generalizations do a disservice to the parents who struggle daily to provide for their children in the most difficult of circumstances. That those who should be encouraging and supporting them and their children would demonize them in this way is outrageous.
The most galling aspect of the interview was the underlying premise that the failure of these schools is somehow the fault of the children and their parents. While parents play an important role in the education of children, the sorry state of education in Waco has numerous causes including inadequate and inequitable school funding, the overuse and misuse of high-stakes testing to determine children’s knowledge and worth, lack of support of teachers, large class sizes and other complex reasons.
To blame parents and their children for a failing school system is tantamount to blaming the victims, and it is shameful. Instead, the district should develop partnerships with families to engage them in building stronger schools.
The children and parents of J.H. Hines Elementary and Brook Avenue Elementary as well as the four other schools in danger of being closed deserve the respect and help of the superintendent and the school board — not their contempt and condemnation.
Peaches Henry is president of the Waco-McLennan County chapter of the NAACP, which endeavors to ensure the political, educational, social and economic equality of rights of all persons.