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Ifetayo Kitwala, an 11th-grade student at Baltimore School for the Arts in Baltimore. Credit: Magdalena Slapik for The Hechinger Report

What do you plan to do after you graduate from high school?

I want to be the president. No, but seriously, 2045, I’m running. In the future, I want to get a master’s in architecture and focus on urban planning, just because I feel like many of the problems we see today are based off of where people live and the policies of residential segregation mainly in cities like Baltimore, Chicago, etcetera. I want to use my master’s degree to change that. I also definitely want to be heavily involved in advocacy for young black youth, or, for youth in general, and just promoting student leadership. But, I still want to be president, too.

You’re very self-assured. How did you gain that confidence?

My mom and my grandmother were the first two interactions I had with confident women. My mom and my grandmother always taught me that your way out of your situation is by knowing who you are, being yourself, and just owning yourself. Those lessons in everyday life helped me a lot, and then getting involved with the Baltimore Intersection. Going to the Intersection in 8th grade when everyone else was a sophomore was really challenging, because I wasn’t used to discussions where I needed to think critically about segregation, or the education system, or whatever else. Mr. Cohen, the executive director, really pushed me with, like, “OK, how do you feel about this? Why do you feel that way? What can you do to change that?” Really putting the power in my hands, really empowering me. From that very moment, I just kind of sprouted.

Do you have any advice to teachers?

Many times, I find, some of my friends go into a classroom, and they’re dealing with things at home. They bring that into the classroom, and the teacher assumes that it’s targeted towards them. So, they get suspended, or they get detention, or whatever else. They are starting to be labeled as this defiant young man or defiant young woman regardless of color. Just take into consideration what might be going on at home, and them not having an outlet to deal with the emotions that they have. Most students don’t necessarily want to come to school and get suspended. I know it’s not in your job description to become a therapist. But, because you see the student so much, just try to be a little lenient and say, “Hey, I see you’re a little off today, Mr. Johnson. What’s wrong? Do you need to talk to someone?”

Students are complex, but teachers never seem to recognize or acknowledge that fact. They don’t just want to learn physics, AP Vocabulary, and whatever else you’re teaching them. They also want to know that, if need be, you are there, and that you actually have a relationship. Because you see the student more, if not the same amount, as they see their parent. You’re basically their second source of knowledge. Subconsciously, we turn to our teachers to make us better human beings and we look forward to experiences that they will give us. Acknowledging that responsibility and understanding that students have more interests and dreams and goals and empowering them to follow them is a really key thing.

What would you say is one thing that needs to be fixed currently about public education?

The interaction between administration and students and the amount of student voice put into the decisions made, specifically about Common Core and standardizing a certain curriculum.

What role should school and teachers play in students’ lives?

I feel like the teacher and the school share a similar role. When students go to a certain school, they all come from different backgrounds, different upbringings: who was home, who took care of them, how much they saw them, what their occupation was. All these factors make them all different. I feel like school should be a place where I can learn about their culture and where they came from and for them learn about mine. And, of course, you know, have your science and math, and learn how to write. But, also be, not necessarily a culture shock, but a place to broaden your mind. If you don’t do it young, then you’ll never do it, in my opinion. If you don’t start appreciating the kid next to you who has a completely different family style or family structure and life experience, then you won’t do it when you’re older. You’ll look at it in a single-track way. I feel like that’s the role of a teacher and school as an institution. Just to create a space where students can fail, and still be like, “OK, I’m gonna try again, but in a different way.” Instead of saying, “OK, I failed. I’m not going to be anything. Let me just quit.”

Ifetayo Kitwala was interviewed on 2/6/16. Student interviews were carried out during the 2015-2016, 2016-2017 and 2017-2018 school years. Posted grade levels are the grade the students were in when they were interviewed.

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