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Perspective | One teacher’s message for Secretary Cardona

When multi-classroom leader Kenyatta Davenport got the chance to talk to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, her message was simple: Teachers haven’t given up, but we need your support to get students back on track after the coronavirus — and fast.

Simple — and short, since she had limited time to speak to Cardona when he visited Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools on July 12. But Davenport would definitely tell him more if she had the time.

Davenport, who as a multi-classroom leader heads up the teaching team for sixth-to-eighth-grade science and social studies at Thomasboro Academy, said teachers feel the pressure to catch students up who fell behind during the pandemic.

“We have a lot of work to do, and we really need the support of our upper-level people that can make things happen,” she said. “I know there is only so much I can do, and instead of complaining about things, I just really, really focus on the positive, but it’s hard to do that if we don’t have the support of people that can make change — and he is one of those people.

“The pandemic was change after change after change after change, but no matter the changes, teachers still showed up for students, and I think at the end of the day, teachers really want someone to show up for them … and not just show up on paper, really put the action behind your word.”

Student needs extend beyond school day

Davenport pours herself into her students, so what do they need that she wishes Cardona and other education leaders would address?

Things can’t go back to the way they were pre-pandemic, she said. Specifically, Davenport said schools need more wraparound supports for students and families that extend far beyond the school day. Thomasboro Academy offers supports she appreciates, but they usually end when school lets out each day, she said.

“The wraparound service needs to truly wrap around and really, really focus in on ensuring that our parents and our students are getting the things that they need in school and out of school.”

In her ideal world, school buildings would be open after hours to parents, offering everything from computer access to counselors to food and clothing pantries.

And she would ask Cardona and other education leaders to equalize the opportunities available at each school, noting the disparities between schools with higher-income students — and more economic support from parents — and her own school, where 66% of students are classified as economically disadvantaged.

“Just that we’re all afforded the same opportunities,” she said. “Now what you make of that, that’s on you, because we know some of it is intrinsic; you have to have that desire to want to do better. But I also think that sometimes so many things just hit you in the face that that desire can become diminished.”

What about teacher needs?

“More pay, clearly more pay, but the majority of the teachers, they don’t do it for the pay, they do it for the outcome,” she said firmly. That said, she noted that “if you could eliminate my student loans, then I wouldn’t have to work a second job.”

Davenport had a circuitous route to becoming a multi-classroom leader (read or watch a 2017 video about her journey here). She spent many years in classroom assistant roles before getting her bachelor’s and master’s degrees and starting to teach at Thomasboro in 2011 — and took a second job recently solely to pay off the loans for those degrees.

“Now, is it anybody’s fault that I chose to go the route that I went?” Davenport asked. “No. But I went to further my education so that I could be better prepared for my students.  So don’t penalize me for doing the things that I know are in turn going to be a better fit for my students.  It’s like I’m building myself up so I can build them up, but at what cost?”

Without student loans weighing her down, “it would eliminate the need for me to have to rush out of here at the end of the day. I could open myself up to doing tutoring for free — I don’t want to charge anybody for tutoring. I’m giving you the knowledge that I have, and I give it to you freely because somebody gave it to me. But it would eliminate me having to run out of here at 3:30 to make it to a part-time job at 4 o’clock.  It would eliminate me getting off at 8 o’clock, going home, trying to eat something before I go to bed.

“It would just take a huge load off of my shoulders, and it would in turn provide more money in my pocket that I would in turn pour into the kids” — something she does as much as possible already out of her devotion to her students, keeping her room stocked with supplies that she buys with her own money, including pencils, book sets, and toiletries, especially sanitary pads for students to quietly take what they need without embarrassment.

Having at least a little time to speak to Cardona and other political and education leaders in attendance felt powerful, Davenport said.

“It was just really good to let them know that the teachers haven’t given up, none of us have given up, but we need you to support us in doing the work that needs to be done,” she said. “The conversation, it was short, it was sweet, but I was able to at least put a bug in his ear.”

Sharon Kebschull Barrett

Sharon Kebschull Barrett is the vice president for editorial services and communications at Public Impact, which founded the Opportunity Culture model, first used in schools in 2013.