KIPP Gaston regularly outperforms other institutions in the area. Photograph: Alex Boerner
On my final night reporting in North Carolina, I attended KIPP Gaston’s 17th annual Parent Pride Night, an annual celebration ahead of the holidays. I watched as families filed into the auditorium with cell phones and iPads ready to record their children’s performances, which were all written to reflect the school’s social justice mission. The most impactful and provocative performance on the night came from the middle school’s eighth-grade class. In a mixture of song and spoken word that they had written themselves, they marched the audience through American history, reciting the nation’s founding creed that “All men are created equal” before starting to sing the slave spiritual Wade in the Water in a slow, acapella dirge.
They moved forward into the civil rights era, naming seminal events in the movement like Birmingham, the March on Washington, and Selma, and then began to individually chant out their own dreams for the future: fairness, unity, equality, and justice. Of the nine white students in the eighth-grade class, seven elected not to participate in the performance, a reminder that the racial tensions in the school remain simmering just under the surface.
For Sutton and the school’s leadership, the first year of the Trump presidency has provided a chance to reflect on how the school connects with its white families. She stressed that the majority who have attended the school have been open to the school’s mission or at the very least willing to have their children hear the school’s perspective. Moreover, they’ve helped build the network of KIPP schools into one of the largest in the region, serving just under 2,000 students across three campuses. These parents have chaperoned dances, helped coach sports teams, and volunteered in classrooms.
Yet there remain some who are skeptical about the school’s social justice mission and increasingly raising concerns.
“I do think there’s still a belief that we want our kids to get a good education, we realize that kids are going to college and we realize that they’re safe,” said Sutton. “And like damn if we could just control what they learn, this school would be wonderful.”
She recalled a recent conversation with a family about the decision to put “Black Lives Matter” on t-shirts worn by teachers where she was informed that – in the family’s opinion – the school was supporting a terrorist organization.
“It’s hard because it’s a segment of the population that’s not used to feeling powerless, that’s not used to having things feel like they’re happening to them, which is how people of color feel every minute of the day,” she said. “Go back 100 years or even go back 40 years when their parents or grandparents sat in classrooms where they didn’t learn about any black person. It’s an interesting reversal of perspective that I don’t think enough people have reflected on.”
Though she has no intention of altering the school’s mission or curriculum, Sutton is thinking now about how the school can do a better job of continuing to educate the entire community about the school’s values at a time when social media, fake news, and a partisan press have left the country as divided as her own community was on that viral Facebook post. She has no easy answers to the question but is committed to continuing to try. “What we’re not going to do is not talk about something because it offends one person because that’s how you get into the Facebook post of just having the same conversation over and over again,” she said. “Change is only going to come when you’re uncomfortable, and you want kids to be uncomfortable from the safety of a school where they can talk about it and not on social media where there’s no check and balance to it.”
“Those conversations are necessary,” she concluded. “And we can’t wait for the country to let them happen.”