By Erin Albanese
It was the first day of school during Byron Garrett’s second year as principal when he met a kindergartner who spoke no English.
Garrettt spoke no Spanish. He had no way to tell her how to get to the playground, to the bathroom, ask if she ate breakfast or had her school supplies. He remembers feeling unprepared, looking at the girl and thinking, “You didn’t come with any instructions. You’re standing right in front of me, though.”
On the playground, the girl fell down. “She stood up, started crying and immediately reached out,” Garrett recalled. “I instantly thought, ‘Oh, that’s right. You’re human just like me. You’re a little human, but that’s OK.’
“So I picked her up.”
During a special Martin Luther King Jr. Day multicultural in-service program, Garrett spoke about the need for educators to connect with students and their families in ways that tap into community and culture, in a society where technology is a huge part of everyday life and old systems need to be constantly modified.
He spoke of helping students feel confident and empowered, and to aim for high achievement.
Garrett is author of several books, including “The ABCs of Life,” a blogger for the Huffington Post, and chairman of the National Family Engagement Alliance, a nonprofit aimed at student success. He led the session in front of 1,200 district teachers, administrators and support staff.
“You cannot teach who you do not know… so you should know your community and where they live,” said Garrett, of the Washington, D.C. area.
He complimented Kentwood as one of the few districts he’s spoken to where all staff attended his session. That way, everyone hears the same message, he said: “It takes all of us to make this work.”
Kentwood Public Schools includes students from nearly 80 countries and who speak 61 languages, said Superintendent Michael Zoerhoff. It hosts professional development based on diversity every year for the King holiday.
“Let’s continue our work of showing a world where people of all races, creeds and religions and whatever they throw at us will continue to strive for excellence and achieve that excellence,” Zoerhoff said to his staff.
“I wish that anyone who’s struggling would watch us. I believe we will become even more of a beacon of light for those who don’t feel like they have a place where they can go and feel accepted.”
Fulfilling King’s Mission
A native of North Carolina, Garrett can rattle off the names of teachers who connected with him in unforgettable ways: fourth-grade teacher Connie Martin, fifth-grade teacher Candace Hayes and sixth-grade teacher Barbara Twitty. “The three of them really helped shape foundationally how I would navigate life in the school system moving forward.”
Garrett told the group that educators are living King’s message of serving others by shaping the lives and views of young citizens.
“(King) fundamentally believed and contended that education is an equal right amongst all and it’s also the great equalizer, the one common denominator if we all have the same quantity, the same context, the same experience and the same environment.”
But he cautioned, “It doesn’t mean everything is equal right now, because it’s not.”
Garrett travels all over the nation to speak, experiencing a great cross-section of the population. Pushing for equity in education in a divided country is a challenge, he said.
“I am eternally optimistic and hopeful as I encounter folks in the education space who realize they are not waiting for some magical answer or solution. Never have they waited for a magical solution to emanate from the nation’s capital or the state house, but instead they’ve stayed focused.”
Still, there’s a different undercurrent and divisiveness that exists right now, he said.
“For too long we’ve ignored some realities that have existed,” he asserted. “Now we have no choice but to confront them head-on. We can’t do that with a spirit of hate. We can only do that as Dr. King said and admonishes us, with a spirit of love.”