Chalkbeat journalists ask the people we come across in our work to tell us about their education stories and how learning shaped who they are today. Learn more about this series, and read other installments, here.
Shanae Staples worked as a public school teacher and Teach for America leader before joining the founding team of Enlace Academy, a charter school on Indy’s Westside. Now a Mind Trust fellow, Staples is working with Enlace principal Kevin Kubacki to plan a second school, Kindezi Academy, that is likely to take over management next year of School 69, a struggling elementary in Indianapolis Public Schools. We caught up with Staples last month to talk about her vision for high-quality neighborhood schools.
I grew up in a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood where I wasn’t educated in my community because my parents decided they wanted to put me in a private school that was really high performing. … I have three older brothers who attended the … local public schools that had been failing for a number of years.
I can remember as a 3, 4, 5-year-old, showing up to their schools. And my brothers were constantly being put out of classrooms. There were tons of kids in the hallway that were just sitting idly, throwing pencils across the floor. My brothers were never engaged. When they would come home and have to work on homework, they constantly were asking, you know, “I don’t remember learning this.” It was just so frustrating for my siblings and for my mom.
By the time that I was of school age, my parents made this decision — there were points when both of them were unemployed, (but) they were going to scrape up whatever they had and send me to the (private) school that they had heard was really excellent.
It was just a radically different experience and a radically different foundation than what my brothers had.
I had a teacher, Miss Fauntroy, a little old woman who would come down to the cars every single morning and greet every single one of her students and walk you up to the building. And she would ensure — knowing that I wasn’t from that community, knowing that I didn’t have any other siblings in the building — she would ask me about my day, she would tell me she loved my hair, she would ask me how my homework was.
Every single teacher I had invested in every single student. Everyone had high expectations. … They had great relationships with my parents. There were things that I couldn’t wait to get home to tell my mom about, and she was like, “oh yeah, well, I talked to Miss Fauntroy on my lunch break because she wanted to tell me because she was so excited that you presented this project and you did really well.” It was that type of powerful experience.
I had to get up at the crack of dawn with my mom who also had to go to work. I had to get ready. I was in before school care. My grandmother was picking me up because I couldn’t afford before and after school care. And my brothers were rolling out of bed and walking, literally one block to the elementary school. They were walking around the corner to go to the bus stop for their middle school.
I knew that there was a distinction between the friends that I was stepping outside with and hanging out with after school, and then when I was getting to school, none of them were there.
The friends that I developed at school didn’t live near me. There were tons of conversations between parents around coordinating, like “oh they can have a play date on this day, this works with my schedule.” … I was very cognizant of the fact that my friends from that school did not come to my house, I went to their house.
I left that school and returned to my community schools for middle school and high school. But when I got there, and I’m sitting in the same classrooms with some teachers that had had my brothers, that had suspended my brothers and that eventually two of my brothers had dropped out of. (But) I was having a radically different experience. I was put on an Advanced Placement track. I was constantly being pushing to apply for scholarships, to apply for colleges. I graduated at the top of my class.
As I got older and I started to be able to reflect on that experience, as I was old enough to understand the trajectory of my brothers lives, then I was able to kind of touch in with, “oh wow, my parents made extreme sacrifices to be able to provide me with that opportunity because they were so unhappy with the opportunities that were there for me in our community.”
All students deserve that opportunity, but they also deserve the opportunity to be in their neighborhood, to be with their friends, to be with their family members — to be able to walk up the street with friends to that school and know that that school is going to highly educate them.
Education defined the paths that my siblings and I were allowed to pursue. Because they didn’t have a strong primary foundation, because they didn’t have teachers who were saying, “you can do anything you want to, let’s figure out what you want to do and let’s work to get there.” The path that they were on in life was different than mine. Because I had that foundation and I had someone to give me that level of support, I had someone who knew me, who loved me, who wanted to highly educate me, the world was kind of my oyster.