When I first met Master Joseph Parker in 2008, I knew there was something special about this young man. He had that “it” factor. It took us a while to figure out what “it” was, but he remained steadfast and enthused about learning. He was one of those students that was very forthcoming about what he didn’t know. He was also a self-advocator. One of those students who would tell you the truth about your teaching and how you should teach him.
When Joseph came into 5th grade he was not on grade level. He struggled with basic comprehension which led to immense struggles in both Math and ELA. A confident young lad like most people, he became frustrated with failure. The teachers didn’t have any answers. The school leader at the time, Ms. Laurie Werner suggested that Joseph be referred to a child study team to conduct a battery of tests to determine what issues may or may not exist.
Insert Gennifer Parker (Jennifer with a G), Joseph’s mother and number one advocate. I remember her pulling me to the side and saying, “Ankrum, hell no, they aren’t referring my kid to no God dang special education”.
For those that don’t know; The label “special education” has been a stigma in the Black community for decades. Research has stated that special education was used to marginalize students of color. Labeling students “special education” was seen as the easy way out. This is particularly true when educators didn’t want to do the necessary legwork to find out what was really stopping Black and Latino students from learning. They’d just categorize them.
I remember pulling Ms. Parker to the side and having an in-depth conversation with her about the special education process and the benefits of testing her son to see if he qualified for services. I explained that today’s mainstream special education services were nothing like the services that once haunted communities of color. She trusted me. Ms. Parker permitted her son to go through the process of testing. He was found to have difficulties and was issued an individualized education program (IEP).
Initially, Master Joseph was bothered by the findings. He wasn’t his normal, jovial self. He wanted to learn and be like everyone else. I remember giving him pep talks, reminding him that he wasn’t like everyone else. In my opinion he was better than everyone else. I Was honored to become his mentor.
After I left the school in 2011 we kept in touch. He would fly down to Baltimore to visit my family and became a part of my family. We would regularly touch base on his progress, struggles, etc. Whenever he messed up in school “Jennifer with a G” would call me and say, “call Parker”, or “please call your boy”. I would oblige of course because Joseph had grown on me like he was my own flesh and blood.
As Master Joseph was going through his struggles, his mother became a parent advocate for parents who had students with disabilities. Amazingly this woman who was once opposed to the process was now walking parents through what services they should ask for. This is an example of what building a connection with a parent can do for the lives of students and families.
Did I mention “Jennifer with a G” dropped out of college to raise Joseph. In order to show her son he can accomplish anything if he sets his mind to it, she went back and finished college.
Fast forward to last night, 6/23/16. Master Joseph Parker walked across the Harlem Village Academy high school. True to form, he did his “prayer dance”. It was super authentic, “reverend like”, but typical Joseph. Last night I was beaming with pride.
This summer Joseph is attending a Morehouse summer program With hopes of being fully admitted as a freshman in the fall. In 2008, I made the following promise to Ms. Parker, “if he makes it into Morehouse, I’ll purchase his books for the first semester”… Boy am I glad you can now rent books… Congratulations Master Joseph Parker on your accomplishment. This is only the beginning. With the grace of God, you can conquer anything…
I share this story to highlight the importance of building relationships with students and families. If we truly desire students to go out and change the world, we have to be transparent and actionable in how we interact with students.