This suburban principal’s call to action: Give ALL kids access and believe in their big dreams

It never occurred to me that I couldn’t be anything I wanted to be. As I child, I dreamed of being Diana Ross, a doctor, an engineer, a business owner and a host of other things.

As a student, I took risks expressing myself by deciding to play Malcolm X in a school presentation, I spoke up about injustice during Black History Month while wearing a T-shirt that said, “It’s a Black thing, you wouldn’t understand it.” I asked tough questions in social studies classes and challenged school leadership about policies and procedures.

I was not only fortunate to have parents who accepted and cultivated my big dreaming and line crossing, but I also had teachers who saw an engineer, a teacher, leader and activist.

My high school trigonometry teacher is one of the reasons I became an engineer. He saw my desire for mathematical perfection and my love for learning. He gave me a pamphlet to a Minority Engineering Summer Camp at Purdue University. So, in 1992, Engineering Camp at Purdue was added to my summer along with Band Camp at the University of Illinois at Urbana.

These enrichment opportunities are experiences that are not readily available to everyone, especially kids like me. Engaging in STEM learning in the 1990s? For a black girl from the Southside of Chicago…unheard of! It was the experience of spending a month on a college campus that reinforced the idea of me being a college graduate.

What this means for my work

As a principal, I have had the good fortune of working at a variety of school types and serving a variety of students. This work is really rooted in discipline and belief–discipline to stay positive and focused, and belief that all students will reach their potential and beyond.

With that said, I think it is easy to see students as their circumstances. See them as the labels we put on their parents, their neighborhood, and maybe their school. We also assume that the structures are easy for everyone to navigate, just because it is easy for some to navigate.

As teachers, leaders and community members, we have to think about the opportunities we currently provide to students and the obstacles to those opportunities. We have high-access families that are well informed and have the finances for math camp, engineering camp, skateboard camp, and every other camp. And there are the low-access families that not only are unaware of these opportunities for their children, but don’t have the resources (financial, transportation, etc.) to expose them to this bounty of opportunities.

My action for 2017 and beyond is to make every family a high-access family. From emails to snail mail to phone calls and door knocking–opportunities for an enriching student experience is every child’s right.

My call to action is for you is to invite and bring someone with you to the next PTA or Local School Council meeting. Share the flyer for the free camp with the neighbor you wave to every morning. Donate to the local community center to fund scholarships for families in need. Make sure every child on your block has the opportunity to become an engineer, teacher, business owner, musician, or leader.

Access is the key.

As poet Gwendolyn Brooks (and my school’s namesake) reminds us:

“We are each other’s harvest; we are each other’s business; we are each other’s magnitude and bond.”

Photo courtesy of the author

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LeeAndra Khan

LeeAndra Khan

LeeAndra Khan is CEO of Civitas Education Partners, a charter management organization in Chicago. She served two years as a middle school principal in Oak Park, Illinois and formerly spent ten years in three Chicago high schools as a principal, assistant principal and math teacher. Before beginning her journey into education, she spent 10 years as a civil engineer designing roads, highways, gas stations and bridge inspections. LeeAndra is the mom of one son and the daughter of a retired Chicago Police Officer. She recently delivered a TEDx Talk on teacher voice and leadership beyond the classroom, where she tells a story about how a school culture transformed through more teacher influence.

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