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Families are the Cornerstone: A Conversation with DC Teacher of the Year Kelly Harper

When the news broke that Kelly Harper, was named D.C.’s Teacher of the Year, we were bursting with pride. Not only does she teach at Amidon-Bowen Elementary School, a Flamboyan partner, but Kelly also serves as a member of their family engagement leadership team. We recently sat down with her to learn more about her journey. Read on to find out how Kelly’s experiences as a DC native and woman of color led to her to become an educator determined to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline by empowering students to broaden their horizons.

So, we can’t resist starting with your DC Teacher of the Year win and National Teacher of the Year nomination. Tell us what that means to you.

I was born in DC. My grandmother came here from North Carolina during the Great Migration. My father is a Roosevelt High graduate, but his path to graduation was not linear. He dropped out for a time, but through the mentorship of his teachers, he not only graduated high school but also found a pathway to college. My family was immensely proud that I was recognized for impacting outcomes for students in the place where we’ve made our home for generations. The national recognition was an incredible honor, especially as one of just four finalists. But it is not just about me. Receiving this honor speaks to how far DC’s education landscape has come and is a testament to the educators I work with every day, the students I serve and the families we’re seeking to engage.

What drew you to teaching?

 My plan was to be a judge and attack the school-to-prison pipeline. That changed in college when I interned at the local prosecutor’s office and the Southern Center for Human Rights. I began to question what could have been different earlier in the lives of the people I saw who looked like me, and it dawned on me that I’d rather impact lives early on in the classroom, not later in the courtroom. That is why I specifically wanted to work with elementary school students.

What do you feel distinguishes you as an educator?

 My responsibility goes beyond the curriculum I’m tasked with teaching. I consider how what my students learn is going to propel them to achieve their dreams. I embed lessons about child activists from the Civil Rights Movement into the third-grade government curriculum, and last year, four of my students met with the DC City Council last fall to advocate for additional STEM funding and funding for Title I schools like ours. I broaden their horizons with experiences like an annual spring trip to Howard University, where some of the students go into the trip wondering what college is all about and come out feeling like it’s a possibility for them. In both cases, they see or learn about students from their backgrounds who are capable of great things.

The majority of your students are African American. What does it mean for you to be an educator who looks like them?

As an African-American woman teaching mostly African-American students, it’s important to me to show them the possibilities for their lives. My students often ask me about my life and love to hear about the challenges that I have had to overcome. I know that while my students have endless potential, there are also systemic challenges that can limit the realization of their dreams. I want my students to see themselves as powerful, brilliant and compassionate agents of change in their community.

You are a member of the family engagement leadership team at Amidon-Bowen. Why do you champion family engagement?

Families are the cornerstones of our work as educators. Our students don’t live in isolation. They are being educated everywhere they go – at home, on the football field, at church and throughout their communities. If we’re not engaging with the families and community members that create that ecosystem of support for students, we’re not helping the kids maximize their own potential. I am a firm believer that all parents want their kids to be successful, and we can’t assume we know what parents need to be supported.  I advocate for family engagement so that we as educators are able to meet families where they are to understand their needs and collaborate to meet them.

What have you seen work for families?

It’s been effective to leverage parents’ expertise to support learning activities, activating them to do what they’re already good at, like writing letters to elected officials or organizing field trips.

Another strategy that works is to hold community celebrations or student showcases so parents can celebrate their child’s successes in a festive environment. I have not found a parent who is not excited about their child being recognized. Lastly, I think it’s important for educators to recognize that engagement may vary by family. I’ve had some parents who work in the evenings and can’t make it to traditional “back to school” events or parent-teacher conferences, so we find alternate ways to connect. It’s important that educators be flexible and collaborative with parents.

What do you value most about your school’s partnership with Flamboyan?

 The partnership with Flamboyan has shifted my mindset to be reflective of my own practice. It’s given me a reality check about how I engage my students’ parents. School-wide, I see an increase in collaboration between teachers and staff within and across grade levels to host different kinds of family activities. For example, pre-K teachers are hosting play dates on weekends, so families can come together outside of the classroom. I think the most innovative concept we’ve learned through the partnership is the power of listening to our key constituents, including parents, students and community members. We now think about how families perceive us, what strengths and gaps they’re experiencing in engagement and how we can build on the strengths and identify the weaknesses. Families now say they feel heard. I’m excited to see where we can go next.

At Flamboyan, we are working to ensure students most impacted by inequity are prepared to succeed in school and beyond by helping educators transform their engagement with families. Kelly’s story is one of thousands of incredible educators we get to work with throughout the year. Her story illustrates the power of how families and educators working in partnership can create lasting change for students.