Kathaleena Monds, founding director at the Center for Educational Opportunity at Albany State University, discusses school choice, historically black colleges, education reform research and more in this episode of EdChoice Chats.
Drew Catt: Hello, I’m Drew Catt, EdChoice’s director of state research and special projects. Today, I’m in the studio to introduce our listeners to a researcher to watch. I’m here with Kathaleena Monds, founding director at the Center for Educational Opportunity at Albany State University, where she’s also a professor of management information systems.
Thanks for joining me today, Kathaleena.
Kathaleena Monds: Thank you, Drew. Thanks for having me.
Drew Catt: Yeah, of course. So, Kathaleena, would you mind introducing yourself and telling us a little about what attracted you to issues in K–12 education and educational choice?
Kathaleena Monds: Sure. And again, thanks again for the invitation. I have quite an interesting route to education and looking at the importance of educational opportunities, because as you mentioned in my introduction, my background is management information systems. In fact, I think about having been a public school student in Detroit, Michigan, where I grew up, and my career goal and aspiration was really to be a secretary. At the time, I was learning shorthand and typing and doing both at more than 100 words a minute. So, for me, I have some vivid memories of my teachers telling me secretarial work was just the best job that I could possibly pursue from my experiences.
And so, fast forward. My senior year in high school, I had an opportunity to work at a local company where I was kind of serving in a secretarial capacity for then what was an IT department, unbeknownst to me. The analysts had me typing in what I would later learn was Cobalt Code. Fast forward, someone encouraged me to ditch the whole secretarial route and to go into computer science, which I did. And so, fast forward, I did my undergraduate and my graduate work in computer science and then took it back over to the school of education and received a Ph.D. in instructional technology. At the time, it was really focused on developing end user apps, so we were writing code that was really the back end of what we know of today as online learning platforms.
And so, fast forward, I worked in industry right out of college, but then I just had a yearning to go into higher education, and predominantly because in the industry where I worked, I was only one of two African-American technologists, and I thought, “Oh, maybe if there was a way if I could work in higher ed, then maybe I could motivate or inspire other African-American students to really follow a path where they are better able to connect their comparative advantage and their skill set with an industry,” in the very much way that I was inspired to go to technology and ditch the secretarial route.
So, long story short, I’ve been here at Albany State for about 20 years, but 10 of the 20 years, I’ve had an opportunity to work with K–12 teachers in my then-role as co-director for the Center for Economic Education. That had to be one of the pivotal parts in my career where education became an essential component of my particular interest as a professor, but also an interest in helping to push the needle in terms of educational research.
One of the things that I saw in the 10 years, driving around rural Georgia to the, say, 27 counties that we serve, was really this absence of opportunity. And in fact, there are actually school districts in Georgia, there are about 73 school districts with only one school for each grade level. I have fond memories of driving to, pretty much the rural counties, and I was actually shocked to find that there are school districts where there’s only one school for the entire district. So, K–12 students attended school in one building.
I became really passionate about this understanding of opportunity because I knew that families in rural Georgia needed more. Thurgood Marshall College Fund launched an event two years ago and they were looking to fund research centers on historically black college campuses. As a result of that, we submitted an application and was funded, and excited to do the work of the Center for Educational Opportunity. I know that’s a long way to get to education, but that’s where we are today.
Drew Catt: No, that’s amazing. Congratulations again on that, establishing that center, which I can’t wait to see what direction y’all go in. So, what sort of research are you currently working on, or just released, or really looking forward to getting into?
Kathaleena Monds: Great question. So, first let me give you a little bit of background on how our center is operating. We really exist to be able to strengthen and empower fragile communities, and we use the words “from the bottom up,” because one of the things that we recognize that’s really essentially important in terms of pushing the research needle, it’s really putting the grant dollars in the hands of researchers that are living and working and breathing and understand the challenges of fragile communities. We’ve done our call for proposals a year into having opened our center, and we’ve really gotten a robust range of studies that we’re funding.
For example, one faculty internally, who’s a professor of education, is working on a research study in terms of teacher preparation programs at HBCUs to be able to help kindergartners in terms of readiness and getting them prepared for school. We are working with another faculty who’s a former National Teacher of the Year who has really tapped into 10 additional faculty that, Teachers of the Year throughout the United States, and helping those teachers and training those teachers on how to write policy papers because she recognizes and she liked to coin the term “teacher-researcher.” She recognized that there are teachers who are working within their own spaces but have really innovative ways in which to improve the schools or the districts where they work, and helping them to write these policy papers that can help at least improve the districts if not on a broader scale.
Drew Catt: That’s amazing.
Kathaleena Monds: Another thing that we’re trying to do, too, in addition to providing support for researchers, outside of our center we recognize that many historically black colleges were founded as educational or teaching institutions. Of the 107 historically black colleges, there are 11 that are research institutions offering the Ph.D. degree. So, as a result of that, one of the things that we do think it’s important in terms of a Center for Educational Opportunity is that we also create chances for faculty who are at teaching institutions but who are interested in writing and publishing, to be able to provide them with the research dollars that they need to be able to do that. That’s value added to us because… And we recognize the history of HBCUs being teaching schools, many of which were opened and founded post-emancipation with the aim and the focus of educating freed slaves.
So, we know the value of education and teaching, but we also recognize for our center’s mission, the importance of this bottom-up research engagement. That is to say, in order to improve schools, in order to improve and provide parents with access to opportunities, then it’s important that we have this bottom up approach so the researchers who are really in the trenches, who are really doing the research, are on the ground and being able to provide solution.
I know I’m being a little wordy, but Drew, you’ll be happy to know that one of your segments profiled a book entitled No Longer Forgotten, and one of the researchers in the article is from the University of Georgia, which is north, quite a bit north of where our institution is located. But the beauty of the work that Dr. Williams is doing is really looking at the narrative and the robust historical references to educational choice that have really been a yearning for fragile communities for many years. And so choice, you know, often times people think that educational choice is a new topic in fragile communities, but for a vast many years, these families have often looked for and yearned for ways in which they can engage their kids and their families into high quality education.
So, in addressing your question, we’ve funded faculty that are also doing research at Emory University on educational access for kids whose parents are incarcerated, what choices do they have. We’re looking to work with a faculty at the University of Georgia who’s done quite a bit of work on African-American home-schoolers, so again, trying to continue to support the work that she’s doing. And ironically, we have a faculty at Morehouse College who’s looking to do work on leadership development in the K–12 space.
When we wrote our center’s proposal, one of the things that we tried to do was to kind of hinge it on four pillars: educational opportunities, educational access, educational innovation and educational models. When we did the RSP, we asked faculty researchers to identify which bucket does their study support and align with, so we were able to review those and provide support.
Drew Catt: Yeah, that’s amazing. There are a few things that you said that I want to sort of reach back and connect to. It’s so great to hear that it sounds like there’s an importance placed on understanding the local context from the researchers when they’re doing the research, because that’s something that me personally, like as I’m doing a poll or a survey on another state that I don’t live in, can be so hard to get at. Regardless of how many news articles you read or stories you hear or individuals that you talk to, that local context is so hard to get if you’re not experiencing it yourself.
Kathaleena Monds: I think you’re onto something. And in fact, Drew, when I first became the director, and even still today sometimes I scratch my head wondering what on God’s green Earth I’m doing. But I think you’re onto something. Here’s an example. When we relocated from Michigan to Georgia, and we have four children by the way, we actually did, when we moved from a big city to a rural town, the first thing of course, as you can imagine, was the question of where would our kids go to school? One of the things that we had learned very, very early on was—and this is a little personal and I’m not quite sure that your listening audience really cares—but our children wore their hair in what we call locks. Some people refer to it as dreadlocks. Well, our local school system prohibited boys, African-American boys, to wear locks in their hair. And so we weren’t, because of cultural connection, my dad’s Belizean, we were not willing to cut their hair just because to afford them the opportunity to go to the local school.
So, as a result of that, we decided to home-school our kids. I think, to your point, many families, in educational choice and ed policy can seem overwhelming when you start thinking about the national scope or even the state-wide scope, but when you start looking at individual families and the reasons why choice is the best thing for them for whatever reason—if it’s issues of safety or issues of special needs or issues of cultural connection—then families are looking for chances to provide the best space for their children. As a result of that, having not been able to have our African-American boys in a school where they couldn’t wear their natural hair the way that my husband and I wore our hair, then we opted for home schooling.
Fast forward, one of the things that, again, I think this local context does in terms of school choice, is that it does also give families the opportunity to capitalize on their social capital. What that means is, in the absence of us sending our kids to traditional public school, we were in turn able to capitalize on Boy Scouts. Our sons are both Eagles, our daughter is a Girl Scout Gold Awardee. We were able to capitalize on 4-H, where our kids, our daughter went on to become a 4-H master. And we were able to capitalize on community service. Our children were able to really infuse community service as a part of their educational journey. Those are things that I don’t know that had they gone to traditional public school that they would have been able to kind of customize their learning experience. Those are the kinds of the local context, it’s a kind of research that we want to be able to support because it allows would-be readers to see and understand that there are families that are experiencing maybe similar kinds of challenges that they may have themselves.
Drew Catt: I feel like we’re going to have a lot to talk about now and especially moving forward. So, just for a little other background on myself, you’re talking to a Midwestern farm boy who was himself home-schooled for elementary school and was a 10-year 4-H member.
Kathaleena Monds: Oh my goodness.
Drew Catt: Yeah.
Kathaleena Monds: Well, you know, it’s quite interesting that you say that because you know, big- city Detroit girl, both my husband and I are from Detroit. We were a little bit worried, like, “Oh my goodness, we’re moving to the South.” Now, the irony of it is, every time we meet people they say, “Well, what brought you here?” And there were a few reasons, but among the top three were the weather, we were just at the point in our careers where we just could not weather another winter storm. Two was education, we were concerned about the state of affairs in big-city Detroit at the time. And then three was safety.
Drew Catt: Yeah. Did you have any inkling of kind of where things were trending in education in Detroit at that point in time?
Kathaleena Monds: I had a little bit of an inkling, so here if we can connect kind of economics to education.
Drew Catt: Yeah.
Kathaleena Monds: We knew that, and we could see that there was an extreme decline in population in the city. And we also knew that there was a connection between property taxes and the property tax assessments that go to support local schools. So, if you put those two together, the assumption is something is probably going to be underfunded, i.e. schools, and that in turn could affect the quality of those schools. So, you know, our kids were relatively young when we left Detroit, but we did know that there were some concerns.
Now, let’s get to trending, one of the things that we do see, and you probably are very much aware, is there’s this constant discussion and debate about educational choice, particularly in African-American communities as re-segregation as a way in which to segregate African-American kids from their counterparts. And we were, even when we decided to home school our four children, we did have some close friends kind of looking at us googly-eyed, as if, what on God’s green Earth were we doing. But one of the things that we’re learning is, in the absence of families, let’s say opting for private schools or charter schools, African-American families are home-schooling. And the numbers are over 200,000 families that have decided to home school. I think that that’s a clear indication that while families may not necessarily want to gravitate to charter or private, maybe because there’s some peer pressure to do so, they are gravitating to being able to say, “I have some responsibility in providing my children and educating my kids at home.”
Drew Catt: So, now I’m just curious, when you did move and it was clear that the local public school wasn’t going to be the best choice, were there any other options in your residential area?
Kathaleena Monds: Good question, and thank you for asking that. Not much so. We moved to a little town called Cairo, Georgia, which is in Grady County. At the time, the closest choice was a private school in Thomas County, and that was about it. Maybe within a 30- or 50-mile radius, I could hit Tallahassee and there were some options there, but not very many in Grady County. I do think as I have conversations with those close friends who were initially looking at my husband and myself when we decided to home-school, who were looking at us kind of weird, fast forward once our children graduated … And by the way, our children are now 22, 20, 18, and 13. Well, the 22- and 20-year-old have already graduated from college, and knock on wood, they were graduates in the Morehouse class of 2019 and recipients of the Robert F. Smith Philanthropy.
Drew Catt: Wow. Yeah, that’s amazing.
Kathaleena Monds: So, they are now debt-free. And then our daughter is actually a third-year student at Spelman College, but she has enough hours so she could graduate in May. I think what happens, it’s kind of like educational choice, particularly in our experience, people kind of shake their heads at first, but then when they start seeing students thriving, and you know, they always have this perception that home schoolers are unsocialized. Well, when they see them thriving and having really close networks of friends, then I think that they start believing that, “Oh, OK, choice is possible.”
And so I think in addition to my role as center director of education, yeah, that’s all nice and dandy, but I think the real research outcomes are being able to live and experience as a school choice parent and understanding the light at the end of the tunnel, that it’s actually possible to get a high-achieving child out of a home-school setting. I think that now more people look to us as examples of, “Oh, OK, it’s possible.” And we still live in the same neighborhood we’ve always been in, so it’s not like we’re traitors or anything like that, but we’re very tied into our community.
Drew Catt: Yeah, that’s really inspiring. And it is fascinating to me, it’s really interesting that you touched on the socialization aspect. My introduction to the phrase school choice came from a paper that I did for a child development course in undergrad where I wrote a research paper on the impacts of home schooling on socialization.
Kathaleena Monds: I love it.
Drew Catt: Which is kind of, just … Yeah, to get my own personal perspective and everything. But it’s really interesting, getting into the research on home-schoolers and not only college attendance rates, etc., but also ability to interact with adults at a higher rate or more easily than their peers, necessarily, especially in the younger grades. Actually being more responsible and mature, etc. But it’s really fascinating how, if I have to sit and think about some of the people that, in the eyes of society, are more successful. I’d say at least half of them are people that I know that were home-schooled. Not even people that were in my own home school group, but just individuals that I’ve met over the course of life.
Kathaleena Monds: Absolutely. One of the things, Drew, I can think about, too … I have many, many experiences as a home-school mom, but one summer we drove the family from Georgia to California and stopped at all points in between. That had to be one of the most exciting educational field trips, if you will. And to this day, our kids have very fond memories of that, going to the Alamo and again, stopping in Houston, going and checking out the Buffalo Soldier Museum. We literally stopped at all points in between, and it was just, it was awesome.
I do think, though, that as we look at supporting educational research and educational choice research, that it’s important that we listen. And I know that most of the researchers are doing quantitative studies, but there’s such value in qualitative research. One of the things that I would have to venture to say is, in the year that we were operating… For me, it was really about listening, so for example, there are many books that kind of helped me understand education in America, but one of the ones that was quite influential was John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down.
When I talk to families who have young adults who… For example, my admin and data coordinator went to school with a young fellow in the county where we live who was a straight-A student and started being bullied and was told that being smart was not cool. He made an effort to intentionally get things wrong because he wanted to fit in. So, you start thinking about those kinds of challenges, and then the impacts of his life long term. There’s stories after stories after stories that families share and ways in which you wonder, “Wow, how can research better inform and better improve and better create opportunities for these families that are all just looking for the best school for their kids?”
I’m the youngest of seven, and my mom, who turned 93, as a matter of fact a couple days ago, had at best a fifth grade education. At best. But even with our seven children, she was wise enough to send us to three different high schools, because she knew that one brother was very athletic and he had to go to the high school that had the star football team. I went to a school that was more academically focused, and the other batch or so went to the neighborhood school. But Mommy was happy that she had those choices, even without having had any formal education herself.
Drew Catt: Which I think that just goes to show that all parents have, at at least a minimal level, not only a desire to do what is best for their children, but even the ability to at least somewhat navigate the system that exists as we know it. And in my mind, it’s about broadening that system, making more options, allowing there to be more things to choose from so that everyone can kind of educate themselves on what each of their children need and what might be a best fit for each of them.
Kathaleena Monds: For sure.
I remember another book, I remember another author. Her name was Rahima Baldwin Dancy. I think she wrote a book entitled, You Are Your Child’s First Teacher. I may have that in error, but Rahima was a midwife but also very supportive of the Montessori space. I remember reading her book and I often thought… And it was like, “You are your child’s first teacher, birth to age 3 or age 5. And then I thought, “Well, then what?”
As a parent, if I am my child’s first teacher from birth until age three, does that turn off when my child becomes age five and ready for school? I think that there’s this misconception that even within the traditional teaching space, that it’s the teacher’s responsibility to educate. I think that, again, we have to recognize the value that parents play, and you know just as well as I that more and more research is moving toward this non-cognitive space. What are those non-cognitive skills that affords students an opportunity to have a robust learning experience? And what we’re seeing is that parents are offering those experiences, whether it’s to your point, teaching kids about being responsible, whether it’s character development, whether it’s perseverance or grit.
Angela Duckworth talks about it, what are those other non-cognitive, or those non-test related measures that makes for a really robust educational experience? And I don’t know, but I would venture to say if you were to ask our four children, “Is there anything you felt that you missed out on having not gone to traditional school?” I think it’ll be pretty hard-pressed, because they had friends, they traveled, they were able to see the world kind of as their classroom, and I think that they’re better prepared for whatever lies ahead for them.
Drew Catt: Yeah. And I feel like we could have another full conversation about where is a child taught morals, character, and values, versus where should they be taught and why can’t it be everywhere and everyone. But, I digress.
I think we’re kind of reaching near the end point, and even though I feel like we could keep talking for at least a few more hours just on these topics, let alone getting into any others. But before we sign off, Kathaleena, do you have any last words or any forthcoming research you’d like to plug other than what we’ve already discussed?
Kathaleena Monds: I wanted to say, first of all, thank you for the opportunity to chat. I really appreciate it and thoroughly enjoy the EdChoice podcast on my daily walks. I appreciate it and I know that the work that you all are doing is just awesome. I’m not sure, I think that the closing comments I would say is, one, we welcome researchers and we look forward to be able to support ongoing studies. While we are at an historically black college and we want to push the needle for faculty who are in other HBCUs who want to engage, we provide support to faculty at all institutions. Our goal is really to be able to create an avenue for researchers to remove the barriers, and oftentimes faculty can’t get a course release or they need some time to write in the summer months. We just exist to be able to kind of be that option for them. I would simply say to your listening audience that we look forward to receiving their proposals so that we can support their research, and we’re excited to do that.
Drew Catt: Great. And where should those proposals be sent?
Kathaleena Monds: Thank you for asking. I have an RSP URL that I can share with your listening audience, and maybe you can put it below on the podcast.
Drew Catt: Yeah, sounds great.
Kathaleena Monds: And thank you again, I appreciate it.
Drew Catt: OK. And if you are listening to this, please switch over and look at the transcript and you will see that linked within this podcast.
Awesome. Thank you so much, Kathaleena, for taking the time today.
Kathaleena Monds: Thanks, Drew. I appreciate you and look forward to meeting you.
Drew Catt: Yeah, most definitely.
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