Solving the Puzzle of Equitable Education for All
Kurt Waywood, Manager of Leadership
I grew up in Hebron, a small town in northwest Indiana. The area was predominantly white and I had only two Latino classmates and no Black classmates during my K-12 experience. It wasn’t until college at Indiana State University that I experienced racial diversity in any meaningful sense. I knew there was a whole other world and all kinds of people that I wanted to meet, talk to, and share experiences with. That, and the opportunity to major in political science, were what excited me the most about attending Indiana State University.
Unfortunately, just like the rest of our country, ISU was not a cross-racial utopia. The first shocking, racist experience for me at college happened during my junior year. Someone hung a noose outside the predominantly Black dorm on campus. The FBI was called in and the university was thrown into a panic.
I realized the noose held an incredible amount of power among the Black students on campus because of the history it carried with it. But for me, it didn’t have those same connotations. It didn’t have the same nightmarish quality when I saw it hanging outside of that dorm. I was immediately struck by the injustice of that. It’s a moment that has stayed with me.
Seeking Effective Service in Politics and Education
After graduation, I had high hopes of using my political science major to create a positive impact on the material well-being of people. I worked on a number of campaigns and for one of them, I was placed in northeast Iowa. The major cities in Iowa are very diverse, much like other urban centers of the Midwest. But the area I was in was strikingly segregated and almost entirely white, similar to where I grew up.
Ultimately, working on those political campaigns in the early years after college proved unfulfilling. It was a lot of work with little tangible pay-off. One time I had a shotgun pulled on me, the person at the door threatening to shoot if I didn’t vacate the premises quickly. Another time, I had a dog sicced on me for having the audacity to canvas door-to-door with a message I believed could genuinely help people. I realized this was not the life I wanted. I told myself there had to be a better way of giving back than being in politics.
Even though my hopes for a life of service through politics was largely dashed, I had no intention of giving up on giving back. My father was a teacher so I decided to follow his example and decided to transition to teaching. I had no trouble finding a job in Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS), which became my first experience as a white male trying to directly serve Black students.
To this day, I feel that I failed my students in those first two years. I was not prepared to serve Black students as a white person. I did not have the training or the perspective necessary to serve them effectively. I may have had good intentions, but that wasn’t enough. Since I didn’t feel I had access to the tools or training necessary in the moment to do right by those students, I took a different teaching job in Lebanon, Indiana, a rural and largely white area northwest of Indianapolis.
Educational inequity was obvious during my time teaching in IPS, but my experience in Lebanon opened my eyes to forms of educational inequity that went beyond race. The pandemic hit soon after I started teaching there and I began to see the inequities that were present in my school that had nothing to do with race, like technology access. Socioeconomic status was another huge divide for my kids, with income having a big influence on how successful students were based on the support and resources they received at home.
After a few years teaching in Lebanon, I hit another crossroads and yet again found myself wanting to give back, but feeling stymied by the role I had and its ability to make the kind of difference I hoped to. That’s when my wife convinced me to go back to grad school. I was accepted into American University’s Educational Leadership and Public Policy program. That felt like a combination of my passions for political advocacy work and education that might lead to the impact I was looking for while helping me develop a culturally-informed lens I could lean on in my future work.
From Traditional Public School Die-Hard to Charter Advocate
As a traditional public school teacher, I had a pretty low opinion of charter schools when I entered grad school. But the people I met in my program and the experiences I had there really transformed my opinion of them. I began to see the potential that charter schools were designed to take advantage of, especially the ways charter schools were benefiting marginalized students.
Here’s one example. Curricular freedom and flexibility is a key element of charter schools. When I was working in traditional public schools, I had to use the curriculum I was given. Moreover, I know my leadership was simply telling me to use the curriculum I was given based on decisions that were made at the district level. I was often straitjacketed by what I was supposed to give to students when I taught in public schools. Meanwhile, public charter schools can leverage real autonomy to make curriculum decisions from a place of considering exactly what students need to succeed and thrive.
Here’s another example. Another part of the reason I left the teaching profession was that I felt I had hit a wall in my professional development. I had nowhere to go. No pathway to tread except for becoming a principal. I see countless Indianapolis charter schools offering a more productive leadership pipeline for educators that grow people professionally and ensure the most talented folks can keep serving students without feeling like they have to become a principal.
Without exception, the charter school leaders and educators I have met since joining The Mind Trust care about kids.Kurt Waywood
When I was a traditional public school teacher, all of my colleagues knew that schools were not what they should be and that more funding was necessary to make things better. But over time I’ve come to understand those added funds couldn’t actually be used to spark the innovation that schools need because of bureaucracy and systemic constraints.
Perhaps the biggest reason that I’ve come around on charter schools has to do less with their theoretical possibilities and more with the people leading them. Without exception, the charter school leaders and educators I have met since joining The Mind Trust care about kids. I can unequivocally say they are in this work for the right reasons and are working their tails off to ensure that today’s students, particularly students of color, have access to bright futures.
The Mind Trust is Solving the Puzzle of Educational Inequity
I know I took a detour for a moment there, so you’re probably wondering, what happened to grad school? Well, I graduated in fall 2022. Around the same time I graduated, I found a position at The Mind Trust as our Manager of Leadership. I finally feel that I have found somewhere I am able to give back that is also somewhere I can have a real impact on the future outcomes of students.
The charter and innovation schools are on the front lines, leading the charge in producing more equitable outcomes for our city’s students. I am confident that The Mind Trust is setting the table for these schools to succeed and for students’ learning to be accelerated.
I grew up middle class, my parents gave me the tools to succeed in education, and the system was designed to support my success. My experience is in many ways the outlier when we look at our entire country. That’s what happens when our society designs systems to work for just a select few. I continue to see so many kids held back by these unfair systems.
I knew from a young age I wanted to be part of the movement to change that reality. For me, The Mind Trust is tackling a puzzle that so many people couldn’t or didn’t want to solve. I feel like we have the skills, the knowledge, and the conditions to solve that puzzle here in Indianapolis. Finally, both personally and professionally, I know that I am right where I belong.