Amanda Aiken educates New Orleans’ poorest black kids and personifies #blackgirlmagic

My sister is a superhero

My younger sister Amanda Aiken is a superhero. I say that in no uncertain terms. Of course there is the whole aspect of her being my flesh and blood and all and that may cause me to be a bit biased, but even if she wasn’t, I would think she is one of the most inspirational people I have ever met.

Amanda is the Senior Director of Schools for New Orleans College Prep, a charter school organization in New Orleans. Since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has tried to do away with their corrupt and ineffective public schools, which were some of the worst in the country, in favor of a charter school model.

She regularly works grueling 12-14 hour days five days a week, as well as being an adjunct professor at Relay Graduate School of Education. She has recently been featured in a number of local and national publications as well as winning various awards for her excellence as an educator.

Some of her accomplishments to date include overseeing the highest gains in school performance in history in that city. When she started as Principal, 98 percent of her kids didn’t read on grade level. After year one, it was shrunk down to 50 percent. After her second year the school she took over which was graded as an F increased to a C.

She is a graduate of Spelman College (Summa Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa) and Teacher’s College at Columbia University. Probably most impressive is that she has managed to accomplish all of this by the tender age of 31.

Tell me about your kids. What kind of backgrounds do they have?

First of all, I would say the children in New Orleans are the most resilient children I’ve ever met in my life. The ones who remember Katrina, they literally came back from being destroyed. My children were the kids that were the type of kids that were in the Dome. These are the people that we were referred to as refugees by the media but were American citizens. They were in the Superdome with dead bodies draped with tarps over them, American citizens that were in the Superdome, where on the top level of were all the prisoners from the Orleans Parish jail. These are my kids. These are the kids that, unfortunately, America has not served and America has failed. But they have risen anyway. They continue to rise regardless and in spite of. My kids are 98 percent fee reduced lunch. We have 93 percent African American, and we just have this huge Honduran population coming to New Orleans, which is really interesting. That is the makeup of my kids.

We did a trauma screener on my kids last year. About 67 percent of them had experienced a severe trauma within a two-year period. We’re talking witnessing murders, witnessing shootings, homelessness. At any given time we have about 25 to 30 families homeless at any one of our schools, so probably as a network of 1,500 kids, at any given time we have around 100 families homeless. But like I said, they’re super resilient. They are funny. They are intelligent. They are really good at sports. They love to dance. They are truly what you think of New Orleans: let the good times roll, but have come back from a lot. Also, I don’t think my kids realize that the reason why they live the way they live is because racism exists and classism exists. New Orleans is a highly segregated city. The makeup of public schools in New Orleans is 75 to 80 percent African American, which is not the makeup of the city. As you see, a lot of white people have opted out of public education in New Orleans.

How does that affect public education?

I think when you put people with high need all in one place, it’s really stressful. Not to mention my kids don’t see white people unless they come to school and are some of their teachers. A lot of it is racism and classism, so we have highly segregated schools. I think we have at Crocker, where I was principal, there might be four or five white kids out of a school of 600. We have gone back in time. We are separate, and I will say we are unequal, because we refuse to fund the kids with the most need the way that they need to be funded. But yet Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the world. There is a disproportionate number of African American men, specifically from 70115, which is the zip code that three of our schools are in, that make up a significant number of the prison system. The Times-Picayune in 2012 ran a series. Whole neighborhoods have been destroyed because of Louisiana’s sentencing. It costs $50,000 a year to keep an inmate but what I get on average per kid is about $9,000 a year. It’s interesting what we value. We have privately funded prisons here. Angola, the state penitentiary is infamous around the country. Angola hasn’t imported food in like 10 years. Angola is a working farm. A working farm is a plantation.


The grass that’s cut at LSU is cut by inmates. The grass that’s cut at the state capital is cut by inmates. We literally have modern-day slavery here, and it’s directly tied to our school system. For years, New Orleans schools, like many urban districts, were failing kids. Kids can’t read. Kids can’t think. Kids can’t compute. Louisiana has some of the highest suspension rates in the country. Another interesting thing—Louisiana has some of the highest rates of ADHD diagnoses in the country. Our children have PTSD, not ADHD. I know what that looks like. I’ve got a handful of kids that have that. The rest of them are suffering from PTSD, and we are not treating that.

What I think the issue is in America with education is everyone talks about the school-to-prison pipeline, but no one has done anything to really say why this exists, and no one has a proactive strategy. Because, to be honest, not suspending kids is a strategy. You have to figure out what the root of the behavior that they got suspended for. If kids are fighting, why are kids fighting? You shouldn’t just stop suspending them from their fighting; you should figure out why they’re fighting to get them to stop fighting. And so we have a prison system, and we have the education system, and they don’t talk to each other. And therefore, we are wasting money, both in our education system and our prison system, because we haven’t figured out how to be preventative.

All we’ve figured out how to do is look at a state test and project this many kids that failed the state test will be in prison at some point in their life, so we should build jail cells. I’ll be honest. It’s an accurate assessment. If somebody can’t read, they can’t get a good job. And if you can’t get a good job, the likelihood of you committing a crime is high.

Just elaborate a little bit more on the school-to-prison pipeline and why that’s so dangerous for low income students and students of color.

There’s just a disproportionate number of black boys in prison. Really, there are some huge statistics about black girls, too. We forgot about our black girls. When you think about there’s an even more disproportionate rate of black women in prison to white women than there are black men to white men. Essentially, the school-to-prison pipeline says if schools fail kids, they’ll go to prison. To be honest, that’s true. School is more than just reading, and writing, and math, and arithmetic. It is about teaching people how to be citizens. It’s also about teaching people how to overcome and persevere. We don’t do that. We don’t value that in America. That’s not how schools are held accountable. I don’t get held accountable to how many kids I provide social work services to; I get held accountable to many kids can read on grade level. That’s it.

And so, there’s no funding for this, or there’s a lack of funding for it. Just the ways schools are set up, we are setting up kids to fail. The big thing about kids in trauma is their brain is constantly in fight or flight mode. Trauma impacts a significant part of a child’s brain. Think about when you needed to be in fight or flight. If you live like that, if that’s how your constant aspect is, well, yeah, it is easier for you to maybe shoot somebody. I’m not saying these things are OK, but psychologically, we have not set some of these kids up to be successful. If you have to go to school all day, and your mama can’t feed you at night, you’d stumble in school, too.

You think that’s because New Orleans has a very high rate of violent crime and a very high rate of drug use?

Obviously, yes. Right now, we have 37 murders for the year.

37 murders in 2017. Wow.

And 76 shootings.

76 shootings in 2017 already, and we’re only a month or so in.

Barely a month in. One of the shootings was one of my former students. An eleven year old. He was shot.

What is the greatest challenge for these kids going forward, going into the future?

Every social issue in America shows up on my doorstep. I will never forget. Last year, I would bring one of my students to a mentoring program two times a week. At one point, I had fractured my foot, and he needed to come to the doctor with me before I could drop him off at the program. We got to my podiatrist and he goes, “I’m worried, Miss Aiken. How are you going to pay for this?” I said, “Odell, what are you talking about?” He said, “Do we belong here?” I said, “Boy, this is my podiatrist. Come in here and sit down.”

I let him have the whole experience with me. He got to watch the doctor do the x-ray on my foot and do an ultrasound on my foot. The doctor explained to him that I had fractured the bone in my foot, that I needed to be in a boot. He watched me give my insurance card, and he watched me pay my $20 co-pay. I remember driving in the car and he goes, “That card? My doctors’ offices don’t look like that. I’ve never been to a doctor like that, Miss Aiken.” I said, “Well, you’ve never broken anything.” He said, “Oh, I’ve broken things before, but I don’t go to doctors… My doctors’ offices don’t do that. That card you have lets you go to that kind of doctor, huh?” And I was like, “Well, yeah, I get health insurance through work.” He said, “Yeah. So because you have that, you’re able to go there. And because I don’t have that card, I probably won’t be able to go to a doctor like that.” I think it was the first time that he realized that there was a discrepancy in health care.

My sister and me

Is your job rewarding? What’s the biggest reward?

Yeah. What’s the most rewarding? I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I was no joke as a teacher. I was hard. I’m hard on you because I care about you [I can vouch for this]. It’s things like that, it’s things like seeing our kids that graduate from our high school. Our high school has 100 percent college acceptance rate. Cohen College Prep, our high school, was the most dangerous high school in America according to National Geographic in 2008. And now we have 100 percent college acceptance rate. Every year we bring our kids on our college tour to Spelman and Morehouse. Last year, Gyron, one of our graduates, was at Morehouse. He got to come talk to the kids, and they knew he graduated from Cohen. They knew he came from his neighborhood, but they got to see somebody just like them, whose sister was on the college tour. So she got to see her brother make it out and walk around Morehouse. That is rewarding.

There’s the old adage that says those who can do, teach. What do you have to say to that?

Give them the middle finger. Educators are superheroes. At Crocker, I called my teachers Crock Stars. Teachers are superheroes. There is no profession in the world that would exist without teachers.

All right. Well, thank you, Sis.

I’ll talk to you later.

I love you. I’ll give you a call at the end of the week.

I love you too. All right. ‘Bye.

Columbia University