This weekend I returned home to attend my high school’s graduation ceremony.
For the Mohammed Schools of Atlanta, graduation isn’t just a time and place but an experience, memory and journey. Many of us in the audience were products of the Mohammed Schools, dating as far back as the 1930s. Many of us are now parents, grandparents, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles of graduates.
Every year, each graduate is required to deliver commentary on the world and propose a vision for a more just and equitable world. This year carried the ever-fitting theme of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”—often referred to as the “Black National Anthem”—a poem written by James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson.
One by one, the graduates reminded us of our ancestors who were taken by ship, beaten, raped, forced into manual labor and despite the odds, managed to read, write and invent.
They reminded us that there are more black men under correctional control than were enslaved in 1850. They reminded us of the Emmett Tills, the Eric Garners, the Trayvon Martins and Freddie Grays.
They reminded us that the odds were—and still are—always stacked high against black achievement in America.
‘The Challenge for All Schools and Educators’
But this year’s graduates also called us to a vision. A vision in keeping with that of Sister Clara Muhammad, who in 1934 founded the first Islamic school, in Detroit.
Sister Clara refused to depend on a public education system that intentionally treated her children and other African-American students as second-class citizens. She rejected a public school system that had no expectations, no standards and no opportunities for black children.
Her vision, like those before her, was that education grants freedom, justice and equality. That in the midst of injustice we must still find a way to teach and to learn.
During the speeches, a man sitting behind me commented, “But this is a private school.” He’s right and he’s not right.
Though Mohammed Schools of Atlanta is a K-12 private school that depends on tuition and community donations to keep the doors open, we experience many of the same challenges as traditional and charter public schools in urban areas.
We face the prospect of school closure every year. We get nervous when accreditation is around the corner. We can’t afford a science laboratory. We offer limited AP classes. The surrounding neighborhood, though slowly being gentrified, was one of the poorest, most drug-ridden neighborhoods in Atlanta, with liquor stores and payday loan shops on every corner.
So what keeps us going? What keeps us producing kindergarten, eighth grade, high school and college graduates?
We believe in high standards and high expectations for our students. We believe that this burden is first and foremost upon our educators, but, of course, this cannot be done in isolation. The school operates in a cooperative partnership of students, family and community to produce enlightened leaders that go on to contribute as global citizens.
Is this the privilege of private schools alone? Is belief and community support only allotted to those who can afford it?
This is the challenge for all schools and educators—public or private, urban or suburban. Lowering our standards denies our children the freedom, justice and equality that education promises. Graduation reminds us that when we don’t hold schools, teachers, administrators and ourselves accountable, we’re not only failing students, we’re failing entire families, communities and future generations.