This Black History Month, we’re talking with Black school leaders about how their schools celebrate Black excellence during February and all year round. One such leader is Akeem Brown, 2020 BES Fellow and founder of Essence Prep, a proposed K-8 public charter school in San Antonio, TX. If approved, Essence Prep will open in fall 2022.
Over the past several years, Akeem has dedicated his career to serving students living in San Antonio’s Eastside. By founding a school, he wants to help students develop the skills necessary to be effective agents of change in their communities and beyond.
Why did you choose to propose a school in San Antonio?
San Antonio is one of fastest growing cities in America and is one of the most economically segregated. In a community where at least 64% of the population is Latinx and 6% of the population identifies as Black or African American, the data still shows that our schools are overwhelmingly failing students of color. And although most schools focus on high school graduation rates, a very low percentage of our students graduate college-ready.
Essence Prep aims to build both skill and confidence. We want the city’s young people to feel confident in themselves and who they are but also feel ready and prepared to take on any challenges that may come their way. These challenges will certainly involve racism, so we anchor our social emotional learning in the ability to become knowledgeable about self, including self-discovery, cultural identity, holding hard discussions in the classroom, and using a student’s power and voice to dismantle injustices. I wanted to start a school in San Antonio because I, like others in our community, firmly believe that words like love, justice, and peace, are synonymous with education.
How will Essence Prep uplift and honor the experiences of students of color, and Black students in particular?
Essence Prep competencies and teaching practices will be culturally responsive. Our pedagogy and tailored curriculum is purposely multicultural, and not white-centered.
Our school will connect students to the culture of literacy, which we believe is their birthright and civil right. We will engage students in critical reflection on their lives and racial identities in relation to power and justice. Research has consistently shown that positive racial identity matters for both Black boys and Black girls to be able to achieve academically and have the best shot at success in life.
How can schools celebrate Black students beyond just in February? Where are schools falling short of this and how can leaders do better?
Schools can celebrate Black students year-round by creating models and spaces for students of color where they are not only stable, but thriving.
One of the most important pieces that schools are missing is the recruitment and development of educators of color. Essence Prep will intentionally recruit educators of color. First, when you are exposed to those who look like you, you are connected to their achievements, and you witness their passion for supporting the culture, it creates a new, defined sense of confidence. Also, research has shown that racial/ethnic and cultural parity matters because Black and brown students who have a Black or brown teacher are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college, while less likely to drop out of school or be removed from the classroom for a disciplinary issue. Recruiting educators of color is one way we can celebrate Black students and create a better experience for Black students across all schools.
As a leader of color and at only 28 years old, I face several struggles. I always have to prove the knowledge I possess compared to my counterparts, many of whom are non-Black who are already assumed to possess knowledge. I think most folks hear my voice and see my face and begin to develop a story before I even share mine. My unapologetic approach to supporting and advocating for children of color in and out of the classroom is sometimes deemed aggressive and not welcomed in most cases.
For Black students across America, the struggle continues. Now more than ever is the time to develop the models, protocols, and people required to create a truly liberating education.
Accepting a painting of Rosa Parks’ mugshot by a local San Antonio artist, Anthony Edwards