Meet Amanda Aiken, our Professional Spotlight of the month! Every month we will highlight a black professional in the Greater New Orleans area. Learn more about this superhero that refers to all of her students as scholars.

Amanda Aiken was born in Hopewell Junction, New York. She attended the number 1 ranked HBCU Spelman College in Atlanta, GA where she obtained her B.A. in Child Development and her Teacher Certification. Ms. Aiken continued her passion for education at Teachers College, Columbia University, where she obtained her M.A. in Curriculum and Teaching. Upon completion of her Masters Degree, Ms. Aiken moved back to the Atlanta area and taught 4th grade. As a classroom teacher Ms. Aiken achieved high academic gains and achievement with her students.

In 2011 Ms. Aiken relocated to New Orleans to work at Sylvanie Williams College Prep as an Instructional Performance Manager and 4th grade ELA teacher. In her first year at NOCP Ms. Aiken’s students achieved some of the highest gains in the city and her students outperformed the RSD average on the 4th grade ELA LEAP Test. In the Fall of 2012 Ms. Aiken began her Principal Residency at Sylvanie Williams College Prep to prepare to lead Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep. In addition to her work in education Ms. Aiken is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated, Alpha Beta Omega Chapter, a member of The Orchid Society and The National Alumnae Association of Spelman College. Ms. Aiken also enjoys taking and teaching kickboxing classes at Tiger Rock Martial Arts.

Name: Amanda Aiken
Occupation: Principal, Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep
Hometown: Hopewell Junction, New York
High school: John Jay High School
LinkedIn Profile: Amanda Aiken
 
Q: What inspires you to wake up every day and go in to work?
My scholars do. I wake up between 4:30 -4:50am. And I always tell people that I’ve fallen in love with New Orleans through the eyes of my children. They are the most inspiring group of people and at times also the most heartbreaking group of people.  Last week, I was at my scholar’s mother’s funeral. She was shot 3 blocks over and 2 blocks up from here, 30 minutes before he got out of school. So it’s students like him who make me do better than my best. And also my team. I have an amazing group of staff members. They go above and beyond. And so, I wake up early fired up because I know that there are things to be done. Crocker was the worst performing charter school last year  in the city, so we’re the underdogs here. I love a challenge and I love to win, so that’s what makes me get up.
We have a theme song “…started from the bottom, now we’re here.” – Drake
These students have already been failed  socially, emotionally and at times physically and so they can’t go to a failing school anymore because we know the school to prison pipeline is getting stronger everyday. That’s why I get up. When my kids come in the door at 7:20am, they pull up in the buses, their faces pressed up against the window and I think to myself,  “this is why I get up early and this is why I stay here late.” It’s just so worth it. And they are so appreciative and grateful of the work being done even when they are not happy.
 
Q: I know you mentioned the school to prison pipeline, could you share a little more background?
Our schools are setting students up to go to prison. I often argue that schools are a reflection of society. I can tell you everything that is going on in New Orleans, at 7:20am when my scholars get off the bus. They can tell me everything good and bad that’s happened in this city. States use test scores to do projection rates for prison cells and it’s very accurate. If a child is failing in the 3rd grade, systematically we don’t have many intervention methods to help save them  and the implications of a child failing third grade completely increases their numbers of being high school dropouts. Also some other policies around suspension and expulsions exacerbates the school to prison pipeline in the sense of a lot of schools even here in New Orleans are using NOPD to be their discipline system. And I argue that you have to create a strong culture system here. I have kids that deal with “real life situations,” but we have to attempt to create a system that can combat that. I will say though, we’ve seen a lot of explosive behaviors, and I can see why a lot of schools get nervous. There is a lot of trauma going on from the violence, so that creates explosive behavior. The school to prison pipeline is basically saying that schools are setting up kids, specifically black males to go to prison and not to college based solely off their failings. I use the school to prison to pipeline with my teachers. Last year, only a one-third of the students scored basic and above. Basic and above is like fifty percent which isn’t proficient. So if two-thirds of my students fail that means there was a projection rate used to build prisons for them in the future. So you can look at the passage rates for the schools in New Orleans and think about how many beds they’re projecting. If you’re failing by the third or fourth grade a lot of studies show that it’s really hard to reel those kids back in to want to learn.
 
Q: And I’m sure there are programs, organizations that come into the schools to combat that and catch the kids attention?
There are a lot of mentoring organizations. We’ve partnered with Sonny and Son of a Saint, Calvin Mackie and STEM Nola, and Lauren Darnell’s YogaPowerPlay. We use yoga for coping skills. Yoga is great physical exercise too. It helps them feel powerful and also teaches them how to calm down and relax. A lot of our students  don’t have emotional coping skills. Just recently, Andre Perry produced an article, and it read, ” We can’t non-profit our way out of this problem that we have.” And very often we see non-profits pop up and I wholeheartedly agree with him because non profits are great, but my school day is nine hours and you’re not here all day and you’re not in their homes everyday. It’s a bigger shift we have to make to come up with something.  As a community we have to come together. Communities shape schools and not vice versa. To make them come to school and forget about their troubles at home is a struggle. We are trying to be outreach for the kids, but without the parents we are nothing.
 
Q: On a day-to-day basis, what would you say you do? You just mentioned that your day starts at 4am. When does your day end?
I try to leave here by 6pm at the latest. And I get here around 6-6:30am, so it’s a good 12 hour day. And my day varies. Yesterday, I was up at 6:30am picking up kids for the Son of a Saint race and we did that until 12pm. And I’m always available via phone, email. So I always say I am trying to change the world three hundred some odd children at a time. I’m not the principal who sits in my office. I’m always on my feet. I’m in my classrooms all the time. One, because I want to make sure my teachers feel supported and two, I need to make sure instruction is quality for our scholars and three, it’s I believe the principals presence is needed. I take a lot of meetings. I do a lot of community outreach with stakeholders to get them to understand what is going on with our school.  I’m meeting with parents. De-escalating situations. My dean calls me the “child whisperer”  I look at the job description of a principal and laugh. There is nothing that I’m not willing to do for my kids. I tell people that this is not just my job, but my calling. I knew at the age of twelve that I wanted to be a principal.  As I got older, I realized that I knew I would always work with children.  I do a lot, but I look at this as something I was meant to do. It’s a job that drains you but gives you fire and energy at the same time. The fire that gets me to go to student’s parent’s funeral. My teachers are the superheroes. I try to create an environment for miracles to happen. I set the stage for them to do it.
 
Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you face now?
Taking over a failing school is a challenge. It is evident that my older scholars, my third, fourth and fifth graders have been failed. I have a thirteen year old in the fifth grade. And he learned to read in November of last year. Most fifth graders are ten years old. He’s on my computer screen because he is what motivates me. He’s my gentle giant. He was on a Pre-K reading level and he’s now on a 2nd grade reading level. Although he’s not on the reading level he should be, I am proud and energized by the fact that he still has not de-invested from school because he has been failed clearly twice. 
Parent involvement and engagement are struggles. As a whole, parents really want what’s best for their children, but it’s hard to engage them. Some didn’t have a good school experience, some are absent and some are working numerous jobs. If there is a problem, I can get them up here, but I would prefer for them to be here more. I want parents to come when we’re not calling. I have an open door policy for parents. 
The social issues of New Orleans are a burden. Violence and poverty alone affect our students. Around Christmas, we had over 30 homeless families. So I helped to find presents, coats for kids and places for them to go because if you have an older male the shelter situation becomes a little difficult. If there is an older brother who is a teenager, you can’t go to all the different shelters and moms don’t want to leave their teenage sons out.  The violence. I’ve had kids who have witnessed murders or they were around gunshots. I have a little boy who wets himself everyday because it is a part of his Post-Traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to witnessing a murder. The way trauma has manifested itself in our scholars is upsetting. There is really a need for mental health services in this city partly because of Katrina. Most of my kids weren’t born yet, but if they were born they were in the dome.  And we have these post-Katrina babies. My second graders, their moms were pregnant with them during Katrina and because they were under so much stress, the kids I think we need more social and emotional wellness in this city.  The kids are really suffering.

Q: I know you mentioned reading deficiencies, in your opinion, do you think they are ways to solve the problem? Is it parent involvement?

I tell parents that I don’t expect you to teach. This day in age, Common Core is hard. I just want you to set aside time to talk with your kids and make sure they do their homework. All of my teachers have cellphones and they are required to answer their phones until 8pm. I need parents to ask how their kids’ day went, check their backpack, and ensure that they do their homework. Not to mention, ensuring that when they leave the house in the morning they’re ready for school. They don’t even have to eat. If you’re in my after school program, you get breakfast, lunch and dinner, if not, you get breakfast, lunch and a snack. So you don’t even have to feed them before you leave the house. We just ask that they’re in their uniforms and they have slept.

Q: You mentioned Common Core. I’ve seen it in recent headlines. Is it effective? 
I think Common Core is great. I remember teaching in Georgia and a little girl moved from another state and they hadn’t been taught division.  So Common Core says that every child in America in the 4th grade will learn this…And I think that is good. So now everyone is learning the same thing. I do think we need to raise the bar. I do think we need to have some common standards. I always say Education is the most urgent issue of National Security because we keep hiring people out of the country with most of the countries considered to be a threat. Its the accountability around Common Core. So my scholars that  don’t already read well have to work harder to catch up.
Q: So I know you mentioned when you were 12 years old, you knew you wanted to work with kids. How did your career unfold? 
In 8th grade we had this class, resource management. We had to research a job and I knew I wanted to be an educator. And I stuck with it. I went to college and declared as an education major. So naive me from Hopewell Junction, NY, a fourth generation college student, I always knew people were poor, but I thought schools were the same. While in my freshmen year at Spelman College, I decided to volunteer at an elementary school in Bankhead. I calling my mom on my first day. I was upset. I was crying. I couldn’t believe that that this all-black elementary school had Kindergarten students who didn’t know their names and how to write them. That was in 2003.  I remember that being my defining moment.  And I also remember my professor, Christine King-Farris (Dr.Martin Luthr King’s only surviving sibling) telling us that the children of America don’t have time for your best, you better be better than the best. She also said, “Equitable and equal are not the same.” Equitable is according to ones needs and she pushed us to see that you have to be amazing. I remember one summer I worked at Pace Academy which is this ritzy private school in Atlanta and I remember the school being right next to the Governor’s mansion and the school I did my field experience was right next to a Federal Penitentiary. They were 5 miles apart. And to imagine the effects that took place between those kids that passed the Governors Mansion as opposed to the elementary school kids whose playground faced the Federal Penitentiary is upsetting. That was what made me tell myself, I’m going to be more than a teacher. This is not fair. And who’s suffering, poor black kids.

Q: What career advice would you have for your 21-year-old self if you knew then what you know now?

  • Speak life. When I was 12 I told myself I would be a principal. The day I was told I would be a principal was four days before my 27th birthday.
  • Dress the part. I remember people asking me if I was the principal before I became one because I dressed the part.
  • Don’t be afraid to step out on faith and chase your dreams. When I moved to New Orleans, people thought I was crazy. I had a great network in Atlanta. I went to college in Atlanta. I had family, friends, line sisters. But I saw an opportunity here and I decided to go after it. Little over a year I was told I would be a principal and two years later I was a principal of my own school and it’s because I decided to leave Atlanta. I had a good job and good friends, but I decided to chase great.  Chase greatness.
  • Don’t compare yourself to other people. You’re your own competition. I would look at some of the people I went to school with and I was an education major. Everybody else was a lawyer or a doctor.
  • Have a faith life. You have to understand what your assignment is in life. If you don’t understand that and how God plays that out in your life and career, then you will never be satisfied. And that’s bigger than what your job is.

Q: Is there a quote(s) or verse(s) that pushes you everyday?

  • There is life and death in the power of the tongue – Proverbs 18:21
  • Good is the enemy of great – Jim Collins
  • Keep Calm & Carry On. – Anonymous
Q: With all the stress that comes with being a principal, how do you de-stress?
I workout. I teach and take kickboxing classes at Tiger Rock Martial Arts (It’s black owned).  I have a really strong faith life. I am a member of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church. I truly believe you are as strong as your weakest link. I have an amazing support system. But like I said because I feel like I’m operating in my assignment, the stress doesn’t last always.
Q: If you didn’t have to work, what would you do?
I think I would still find myself working with children. I love kids. Sometimes I find myself in the grocery store parenting. Telling the kids, “Don’t run.” I love to travel and would love to do things with kids all over the world. I think Education is the most powerful tool. If you can read and think critically you can do anything!
Q: What’s on your desk?
  • Hand sanitizers
  • Post its
  • Bedazzled calculator
  • Picture of my parents
  • Scripture books for teachers
  • Candy ( I’m addicted to candy)

 

If you’d like to meet Amanda Aiken and discuss ways to volunteer at Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep,  feel free to contact us at info@nolablackprofessionals.com and we’ll be happy to connect you.

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