BRADENTON, Fla. – Lena Clark has a recurring nightmare. The former Army medic and Iraqi War veteran is trapped on the battlefield – bombs exploding, smoke everywhere – and desperately looking for the date in her contract that tells her when she can leave. She can’t find it. Nobody can help. The war drags on.
Clark said the nightmare persists because it’s about her sons, Frankie, 11, and Allen, 10, and the hurdles they face as black males. It’s about the education she feels they must have – and she and her husband must give them – to navigate a world that can be hostile to children of color.
“I’m always going to be in a war for my children because I am raising black men,” Lena Clark said. “And that’s something I need my school to help me with.”
Thankfully, she said, she and her husband found that school.
For the past three years, Frankie and Allen have attended Visible Men Academy, a K-5 charter school south of Tampa Bay that is 100 percent male, 99 percent low-income, 96 percent black and Hispanic – and on the rise academically. The school emphasizes personalized instruction and character development. It’s big on expression through art and parental engagement. That combo, Clark said, has been a tonic for her boys.
“When they get up in the morning, they iron their own clothes and say, ‘We’ve got to be men today,’ “ she said. “If I have to pull them out for a dentist appointment, they’re like, ‘Mommy, what are you doing?’ They don’t want to go. They want to be in school.”
It wasn’t always that way.
Clark said she and her husband, Frank, removed their boys from their district school because the boys’ enthusiasm had begun to wane. Frankie and Allen are straight-A students. Clark said she pressed teachers for tougher assignments, but it didn’t happen.
When Frankie and Allen got home, they binged YouTube with Bill Nye the Science Guy, and devoured websites for brain teasers. That was good, but the Clarks also saw another sign their sons weren’t getting the intellectual nourishment they needed at school.
“We were higher than our grade level, but our teacher didn’t have anything for us beyond that,” Frankie said. “It wasn’t really challenging.”
Too often, Allen said, it was also frustrating.
“If a student had to be redirected,” he said, meaning steered back on track after dis-engaging or causing a disruption, “it was like, ‘Here we go again.’ “