New Schools for New Orleans’ CEO, Patrick Dobard, recently spoke on Talking NOLA Schools with three leaders in New Orleans education—Nicole Boykins, Herneshia Dukes, and Ava Lee—about schools, trauma, race, and how they talk about injustice and police violence with both their students and their own children.

Ms. Lee is the School Director of Samuel J. Green Charter School and Ms. Boykins is a School Leader at KIPP East. Ms. Dukes leads the E3 program at NSNO (in which Ms. Lee participates as a Fellow.) Ms. Boykins and Ms. Dukes are members of a group led by Mr. Dobard called “Young, Educators, and Black.”

Each leader is unyielding in her determination to ensure New Orleans schools are rigorous, compassionate, culturally responsive, and empowering for our children. We share a small portion of their reflections below; you can find the full interview here.

On Being a Black Mother Today

Dukes on hard conversation with her sons
“I’ve been leaning into these moments of social injustice and using them as a tool to teach and empower my children, and not shield them from it. At our house, we openly engage in conversations about systemic racism. We made the very difficult decision to show our oldest son the images and videos of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, to be able to have these really complex and difficult conversations. Ultimately for us we made that decision because they will be Black men walking around in society—and we want them to understand their strength and the power that they walk in, but also understanding the great threat that their brilliant Blackness is perceived as.”

Boykins on how the conversation has evolved
“I remember talking to my son once the Trayvon Martin verdict was handed down, and then we talked about Tamir Rice. The conversation moved from a place of respect for police because they were here to protect and serve, to “hey, son, if you’re ever stopped you should be compliant,” and now it’s almost moving toward a place of fear.

And as a mother I have to be careful not to place my fear and anxiety on him, because I do want him to grow up and experience the world in a more positive way while being aware.”

Returning to School in this Moment of Reckoning

Lee on ever-deepening belief in education
“Based on all the current events in society, I am even more determined as a school leader to ensure all of our students are provided a quality education when we return to school. I want to lead students and staff through a lens of love for the work and each other, empowerment and hope, while making certain that all realize we are a part of the solution. Our students will leave us as they move onto the next level of education well prepared and will be game-changers everywhere they go!”

Boykins on who we hire and what we teach
“It makes me think twice about who we put in front of students. This starts with the hiring process. [We must] put the right people in front of students, who deserve our students, who get to experience our students’ brilliance. It makes me think about what we teach our kids, and how we empower our students to use and find their voices.”

Dukes on the E3 fellowship
We are being intentional about starting our program with diversity, equity, and inclusion training, and we are making sure that every single opportunity we have to be together, we are talking about our implicit and explicit biases. And we are looking at our protocols and handbooks and we are thinking about how in some ways—unwillingly or unknowingly—we are contributing to the problem of systemic racism.”

On School Discipline and Trauma-Informed Practices

Lee on trauma-informed practices
“When the students walk into Green Charter School on a daily basis, when they walk through the door, I see my own children. When I look into the eyes of my students, I see myself as a little girl […] So when I’m taking [disciplinary] action it’s like taking action against a family member. It’s not to say that others cannot serve in a community that they are not directly related with, but I think that is an advantage.

I am going into my 12th year at Green but I’ve served at other schools and my practice has evolved over time. As I’ve learned more, I’ve been able to train my staff, and our practices have changed over time. I was fortunate to be a part of the Safe Schools grants recently, where my staff was trained on leading and teaching and disciplining through a trauma-informed lens.

I read a book recently, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, through my work on my dissertation at Xavier University; my dissertation is on the impact of trauma on school leaders and communities. The reality is that our students come to us with trauma from home, but the extension of trauma from when we were an enslaved people means many of those marks were still there […] instead of suspensions, we are thinking of other ways of handling the trauma that the students are bringing to school.”

Boykins on helping rather than punishing
“My first year serving as a school leader, my brother was sentenced to ten years in prison—you talk about a tale of two cities. […] I was clear with staff, and students, and parents, my own managers and coaches, that I didn’t run a juvenile detention center. This was not a prison; we don’t punish students, we help students. We find creative ways to work through certain situations. And it is a huge mindset shift  […] I was able to see within my first year the power of community of working together, of not punishing our kids, but really helping our students.”

Dukes on culturally affirming practices
“We have to be able to financially invest, and invest in terms of time and energy, in trauma-informed practices in our schools. We have to think about how we are restructuring our schools to create spaces where our students are feeling safe and culturally affirmed, and that we are also presenting to them an opportunity to learn and engage in what’s happening in their communities right now. Too often, we get sucked into white normative culture, [with materials] that don’t affirm who they are, that don’t look like them.”

Messages to Parents, Teachers, and Students

Boykins on affirming adults raising children
I always tell parents—you are doing a great job. I think our parents don’t hear that enough, especially walking into schools. Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, keep up the great work because our babies need you.

Lee on showing care
“I would tell the educators, when you return, whether it’s brick and mortar or virtual learning, make sure you make space for social-emotional learning, make a space to check in with your students […] because they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. Lead with love, hope and joy.”

Dukes on affirming Black children
“I would tell children—we are enough, you are enough. You are beautiful, you come from royal blood that is pumping through your veins […] even at 10 years old, you have a voice and there’s something you can do.”

There is much our children and teachers are being called to hold and cope with right now, and a great deal of trauma they are facing. Leaders like Ms. Dukes, Ms. Lee, and Ms. Boykins are meeting the pain of this moment with immense expertise, compassion, and investment in our city’s children. Our future is brighter because they are helping to build it.


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