Eugene Banks, a second-grade math and science teacher at Ketcham Elementary School in Southeast, infuses call-and-response, movement and words of wisdom in his instruction. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)
Eugene Banks, a second-grade math and science teacher at Ketcham Elementary School in Southeast, infuses call-and-response, movement and words of wisdom in his instruction. (Roy Lewis/The Washington Informer)

This year, the second graders in Eugene Banks’ math class have not only learned addition, subtraction and value placement, but often walked out of class with words of wisdom, inspired by Banks’ upbringing in the District, that he gave between games, physical movement and call-and-response chants.

During one of those moments, Banks told his students that leaders stand out from the rest of the pack using strategies much like what they need to solve word problems. This pedagogical approach, he said, has earned him the trust of students and their families, some of whom may be wary of their neighborhood school at times.

“You have to be responsive, know the culture and make it relatable to them. I want to be somewhat of a father figure to my students,” said Banks, a teacher of five years who started at Ketcham Elementary School earlier this year at the request of administrators seeking a relatable Black-male adult presence at the Southeast school.

Banks, a former Enterprise branch manager, made a career change when he entered the Capital Teaching Residency, through which he taught pre-kindergarten in the KIPP DC system. Later, he sharpened his style of math instruction at one of the DC Prep campuses. In his latest move to Ketcham, Banks has pursued his science interests and expanded the presence of Competitive by Nature, his fitness and community-service oriented nonprofit, now in its third year.

Banks’ community work highlights a jarring reality often highlighted in his dialogue with students.

“We have real conversations about statistics — how some people aren’t going to make it because of bad decisions,” said Banks, a 2004 graduate of Wilson Senior High School in Northwest. “We’re having real impactful conversations about how they’re viewed in the world. It’s a great age. They listen and sometimes I go off on a tangent.”

Nearly half of the teachers in D.C. Public Schools — a school system with six out of 10 Black students — identify as Black. Banks counts among a contingent of Black DCPS teachers coming into the profession who spent a significant portion of their childhood in the District and graduated from a D.C. public or public charter school.

While representatives of the DCPS Central Office said 1,100 employees hail from the District, the positions they serve remains unclear, as does the number of teachers fitting the profile of Banks and other millennials teaching in the public school system.

Given the position of Teach for America, Urban Teachers, and other nationally recognized teaching programs as conduits for talent in the D.C. public and public charter schools, some DCPS alumni from the millennial generation, like Banks, may have used those means to enter the profession. Members of this group, for the most part, received their D.C. Public Schools education in the years up until mayoral control and during Michelle Rhee’s short and polarizing tenure as chancellor.

In 2009, the IMPACT evaluation, mostly contingent on students’ academic performance, become a key determinant of a teacher’s career trajectory within D.C. Public Schools. While Rhee, who has since moved on to other roles in the education realm, painted herself as a reformer and pioneer, critics pointed to the influx of young, non-Black teachers from other parts of the country in the public and charter school systems as an unfortunate sign of imminent change in a city losing its Black majority.

In the years after Rhee’s resignation, and that of her successors, officials from the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU) criticized IMPACT as a key tool in punishing teacher dissent. In November, as IMPACT entered its 10th year, DCPS Chancellor Lewis Ferebee launched a committee, comprised of teachers and administrators, that would review and recommend changes to the evaluation. He made this announcement amid contract negotiations with WTU that stalled around a stipulation preventing teachers from challenging their IMPACT scores.

For years, the District’s teacher turnover rate stood at nearly 10 percent higher than the national average, inciting inquiries from the D.C. State Board of Education and D.C. Council on the matter. In October, Ferebee reported a deviation from the norm: three out of four DCPS teachers returned to their school of employment at the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year. That group included 84 percent of the teachers deemed “effective” and “highly effective” in their IMPACT evaluation. Additionally, some public school Wards 7 and 8 experienced teacher retention rates of 90 percent.

Within the District’s public schools, students’ demands have equally centered on curricula reflective of their experiences and their ancestor’s history in the United States and around the world. Nubia Gerima, a native Washingtonian who teaches at Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School in Northwest, has been instrumental in meeting that need for more than 100 students this year with the launch of a Black Studies Department.

Since its inception, Dunbar’s Black Studies Department, the second of its kind in the United States, has ranked second among the five academies offered at Dunbar. Earlier in the school year, Gerima’s students visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Last month, they sat at the feet of Black scuba divers who excavate slave ship ruins. A “black shirt” ceremony this month commemorated students’ membership in the academy.

Gerima and her colleagues have also set plans forth for a tour of historically Black colleges and universities, scheduled for next spring.

In between those field trips and marquee events, Gerima and her students closely read popular Reconstruction Era and Harlem Renaissance texts, making connections in a manner similar to what would be expected of them at the college level.

Along the way, she’s encouraging her readers of various levels to increase their reading stamina and improve their study skills.

“For any youth, it’s important that we pour into them by teaching them their history so they love themselves and are proud of where they come from. We look at Black Studies as a protective factor for students [that will help them] navigate those spaces,” said Gerima, an African-American Literature teacher and 2006 graduate of Friendship Public Charter School hailing from Brookland in Northeast.

“I’m intentional about making connections; in African-American Literature, we talked about rebellion before we read ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God,’” Gerima said. “We also learned about rebellion by watching a clip on YouTube about the Maroons and their town in Jamaica. I was able to make the connection between the drums and dancing in that clip and go-go, our official musical genre.”

Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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