Tiana Parker, is a 7-year-old. Her parents chose to withdraw her from Oklahoma's first charter school, Deborah Brown Community School in Tulsa, because of her dreadlocks. It was reported that school officials told her father that her hairstyle did not look "presentable." The school is reported to have a dress code that is based upon safety issues. It also reports to want to minimize distractions from learning. Although, their mission is reported on their website as:
The mission of the Deborah Brown Community School is to promote excellence and improve student learning by providing individual students an academically enriched curriculum in a safe, secure and nurturing environment. The school strives to meet the social, intellectual, psychological and physical needs of each child, thus teaching the TOTAL child, in a climate characterized by high academic and behavioral expectations for all children. The school professes the belief that public education is a commonly shared, democratic experience worthy of the commitment of all who are involved.
Most recent reports are that the school has now changed its dress code regarding dreadlocks after the incident was reported in the news. That does not change, however, the experience of that 7 year old who experienced a most basic rejection of her identity as a young black child. Was her hair judged to be a safety hazard or an inappropriate fashion statement? With parental support, she left the school and claimed herself. Considering the mission statement of the school, there appears to be a conflict between their stated goals and their actions. When we create policies, we do, sometimes, choose to write them with a broad brush. It allows us to avoid difficult, gray line decisions. It also minimizes the questions we need to ask ourselves.
Is this a revelation that we, as a country, are challenged by the very diversity that is growing like California wildfires? Is there a veiled attempt at homogeneity deeply hidden in these codes? Do we truly believe that hair extensions are a safety hazard and a distraction from learning? Or are we facing an institutional struggle to push up against the diversity we are proudly announcing we embrace?
It is the same with uniforms. A couple of decades ago, uniforms were a private school phenomenon. That trend began to change within the last ten years. Now, they appear at many charter schools and are also gaining momentum in public schools, especially in our larger cites. Proponents argue that uniforms benefit schools in many ways. They diminish bullying, theft, and discrimination based on clothing. They hold back gang color identity and alleviate the pressures on parents for school clothes. Purportedly, they increase school identity, pride and safety. On the surface, they seem like a win/win choice. Most recently schools are using RTTT (Race To The Top) funds to establish uniform based schools.
Do these issues seem unrelated? We suggest they are not. As our student population becomes increasingly diverse, we search more for common ground. As we attempt to build sustainable school communities, we find subcultures that we barely understand. Each challenges our desire for homogeneity (is that really it?) and enforceable policy. While cultural diversity is a subject of so many school programs, our practice and our policies conflict with our messages. Yes, leaders do need the wisdom of Solomon. In the meantime, this paradox is ours to hold and to wrestle.
Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter.