by Rachel James-Terry
Growing up in the rural South presented its challenges for Dr. Rodney Washington, associate professor of education at Jackson State University.
“It was unforgiving to be a nerd,” he says. “You only had two choices, football and basketball. I was, you know, artsy and kind of geeky. I wanted to sketch and all of this stuff .”
Washington’s proven track record in the education field seems, somehow, contradictory to his life with parents who could not read or write. He states that he was never embarrassed or bothered by this fact, but understood that his mother and father were products of the time and consequences of their era.
“I only thought in my young mind it was unfair that they could not get the education that they should have and why was it okay to have a large demographic of illiterate adults in our society. Their illiteracy was an outcome, not the problem,” he explains.
The youngest of eight children, Washington spent his days as a youth in Lexington, Miss. pulling his weight around the house. “I wanted to read books, and they’re like, ‘Put that down, come over here and feed these hogs,’ a hearty laugh escapes his lips. “I knew that was not the life for me. We had pigs, chickens and the whole nine.” Stylishly dressed in dark washed jeans, a button-down shirt, blazer, and sneakers, Washington seems more city than country as he explains that his parents were unable to attend school because, as the eldest children of their families, they were expected to work.
“It was my mother’s duty to go to the field with her grandmother while the younger siblings attended school. It was her responsibility to help keep the house intact,” he says. While a healthy dose of work ethic was routine for a young Washington, not much emphasis was placed on finishing school. “She just wanted us to learn how to read and write,” he says pragmatically. While he and his siblings would complete high school and then college – three received undergraduate degrees and two completed graduate degrees – he would be the only one to obtain a doctoral degree. Unfortunately, his mother would not live to see this accomplishment.
As a freshman at Mississippi Valley State, Washington helped his mother enroll in an adult literacy program offered by his institution. “She just wanted to learn how to read her Sunday school book…By the time she actually started, she was in her last year of life due to breast cancer,” he reveals.
Once his mother succumbed to the disease, getting out of bed seemed to require too much effort for Washington. “In my young mind, if I hurried up and got finished with school I could take care of her. So, when she passed I had a rough patch with the grieving process,” he admits.
But, his fellow members of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity Inc., refused to let him grieve alone. Washington also felt that failing grades would not honor his mother’s memory, and with combined support and motivation he was able to snap out of his depression.
“I really thought it would be disrespectful not to do my best. That was the driving force, and I also loved school,” he says.
In the mid-90s, Washington began working as a guard in the juvenile justice system where he had a front-row seat to the dynamics of recidivism. He states, “You saw a revolving door of kids coming into the system, and you would watch them grow up through the system.”
The professor explains that parents would frequently declare their child “incorrigible” and have them locked up on a monthly basis. Or, kids who didn’t have a lot of family support would develop relationships with older kids inside the system and “they would rather be in that environment around that type of nurturing, so they would do stuff to return to juvenile.”
Washington spent a total of seven years working with minors. As a result of his employment, his focus shifted to early childhood education, and he began working in the administration of former Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr.
Under the Johnson administration, Washington helped create programs at various schools throughout the capital city that were designed to teach children coping skills and how to function independently with a moral conscience.
In 1996, he would join the JSU faculty as an adjunct becoming a full-time professor in 2002.
“I developed a unique approach to writing and programming that was specific to young people.” He says, “It wasn’t just based on what I read. It was based on all the information I collected over those appointments.”
Washington says, “There is a story behind even who we consider the worst kid. What we see is an outcome. We never get to why this is occurring, and that’s why we keep ending up with the same recurring situations.”
He asserts there are many factors at work that aid in the frequently debated school-to-prison pipeline. “Some of the conditioning happens in our school settings. I don’t know why we have these antiquated rules when it comes to what a disciplined classroom in a school environment looks like,” he says.
Describing what “irks” him, Washington does not understand the logic in making kids sit through their school lunches in silence. “Don’t teachers talk at lunch to their friends?” he asks with a hint of sarcasm.
Instead, Washington suggests teaching appropriate lunch behavior with educators directing conversations versus telling students not to talk. “Rather it’s intentional or not, it indirectly correlates as some of the same things that happen in a correctional setting,” says the grandfather of two young girls.
“To their credit, I think they’re doing their best,” Washington says of educators today. He discloses that pressures stemming from an increased emphasis on testing coupled with low-income students who do not receive the necessities required for successful early development, among other factors, act as a hindrance to teacher and student success.
Washington expresses his pleasure over the growing number of millennials advocating for the improvement of public education for vulnerable populations, he was dismayed by the Mississippi Department of Education’s bid to take over the Jackson Public School District.
“I find this to be unfortunate but also symptomatic of a larger problem. Public school districts with high concentrations of poverty, crime and violence (or even perceptions of such) tend to have lower performance levels for those areas or feeder patterns associated with them,” he asserts. He adds that issues in the district are not newly developed, but coincide with the middle- class flight to suburban areas outside the metro Jackson area and an inadequate funding formula. Washington points out that although there are pockets of success in JPS, there are also schools that have been consistently underperforming.
He declares that at some point “we must move together not around our differences, but for the good of all students.”