Local | May 30, 2014

One teacher’s hope and appreciation for urban education

Recently on my way home I crossed 30th and MLK streets and vividly recalled the tiny six-room home of my father, his 10 siblings and my grandparents, which previously stood a few blocks away.

Close by, construction has begun on new townhouses. Farther up the street, stylish new homes have already been built. I was reminded of a conversation with a colleague who believed that the goal of new construction was to lure whites back to the city’s urban core.

Yet, gentrification is not what it used to be. Though our city is changing, there are many signs that those changes are for the better.

As we recently celebrated Teacher Appreciation Week, African-American teachers must be at the forefront of hope and more good changes to come.

Though teaching was not my first career choice, I have long had an enduring interest in the welfare of children. Along the way I’ve studied the lives of young people in various contexts and became a parent.

Eventually, these interests morphed into a deeper commitment to return home to Indianapolis to become a teacher. Every day I share with the world my fervent belief that all young people matter and that every child can learn and achieve. My students, their families and the success of my community are foremost on my mind inside and outside of school.

Many of the students I teach live in concentrated poverty, a situation which we now know is extremely harmful to children and can affect their ability to succeed in school. The organization Kids Count defines concentrated poverty as an area where more than 30 percent of the population is below the poverty level. A recent article investigating the impact of gentrification on midsize cities such as Indianapolis, found less than expected pressure on lower income families to move out of rebound neighborhoods as housing values increase. Often the economic and racial diversity that is created becomes an asset to the area, as we are now seeing in the Mapleton-Fall Creek and Irvington neighborhoods.

As neighborhoods begin to change, our city’s school districts must change with them. In this way, charter schools have played an important role.

After driving through my grandparents’ old neighborhood, I passed the construction site of Visions Academy, a new charter school in the area. Love them or hate them, charter schools have helped reinvigorate the conversation around K-12 education. It is a discussion further fueled by organizations such as The Mind Trust, and local universities such as Marian University, Butler University and the University of Indianapolis, which are making Indianapolis a leader in education innovation.

I have participated in education policy panels and advisory boards all focused on improving urban education with charter schools as part of the conversation.

I’m not alone. African-American teachers have played an important role in shaping education reform in Indianapolis. When African-American educators take a seat at the table, we serve the needs of our diverse community by increasing opportunities for great teaching and learning for educators and students alike. To me, this represents great hope for Indianapolis and its vibrant, diverse community, as our city continues to change and grow.

Sheila Akinleye is a career instructor in the Career Technology Center at Arsenal Technical High School. She is an alumnus of the Indianapolis Teaching Fellows program and the Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship. Akinleye graduated from Tuskegee University with a BS in mechanical engineering and holds two master’s degrees, an MS from the University of Michigan in landscape architecture and an MA from Marian University in teaching.

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