‘She knew the dangers of me not being able to read’

By Barnett Wright

Times staff writer

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Khadijah Abdullah knows the importance of reading.

She grew up in Birmingham and struggled to read as a first grader until a teacher stepped in, a teacher who stuck with her through fifth grade, even requiring the student to come back from lunch early to improve comprehension skills.

“She saw how important that was for me, but she knew the dangers of me not being able to read,” recalled Abdullah during a recent interview.

The ability to read paid off.

Abdullah attended Ramsay High School and went on to receive her Bachelor’s degree from Tuskegee University in Psychology and Biology. She obtained her Juris Doctor from University of Arkansas School of Law and worked for Wal-Mart Corporate.

She is now executive director of Teach For America – Alabama (TFA) which recruits college graduates from universities across the country to serve as teachers for at least two years in low-income communities.

“We place teachers of all backgrounds,” Abdullah said. “We do have an emphasis on recruiting more African-American teachers. Here in Alabama one of our core values is diversity. But particularly in the last few years, and in the nation, there has been a lot of attention to the fact that of our entire national force of teachers only 2 percent make up African Americans. So in the past few years Teach For America has made an effort to increase the African Americans in the classroom but also African American male teachers.”

TFA formed in Alabama in 2010 with 30 teachers across the state. Over the past six years more than 350 teachers have been placed in Birmingham, Bessemer, Huntsville, Montgomery and in the Black Belt. Currently the group has about 150 actively teaching across the state with 34 in Birmingham. Black males make up 20 percent of the teaching corps with TFA.

Abdullah joined Teach For America staff in 2007 and worked in a variety of roles, including two years as the Managing Director of Teacher Leadership Development in Alabama.

Bar of success

TFA officials credit Abdullah’s leadership for raising the bar of success for students and teachers. Her drive can be traced back to the help she received in elementary school from a dedicated teacher who provided guidance.

“That is not the reality for a lot of our students, they don’t have that access, or teachers don’t have the capacity to do that with all of our students, and as a result lots of my classmates are living different lives than me right now,” Abdullah said, “so part of my joining Teach For America was realizing it should not just be an exception, it should be the rule.”

There are constant reminders of how much work needs to be done.   

Last month, the Alabama State Department of Education designated 18 Birmingham City Schools as “failing,” meaning the schools’ test scores fell in the bottom six percent of the state.

This year’s 18 Birmingham City Schools are up considerably from 2015-2016, when just six Birmingham City Schools made the list.

“It is tough to swallow the failing schools list,” Abdullah said. “Birmingham City Schools had (18) of the 76 schools on that list. Birmingham City is a predominantly African American public city school system; the role that a lot of teachers play, but particularly teachers of color and African American males, are for mentors, in addition to catching our students up and getting our students where they need to be academically.”

That’s one of many reasons the organization is working to get more black males teachers in the classroom. The challenge is how to recruit and place teachers where the salary in other professions may be more appealing. 

“We have to take care of the people who take care of our children,” Abdullah said. “It’s not necessary in salary. But in providing professional development to our teachers so they can continue to get better in the work they are doing.”

Abdullah, who taught high school science for three years in Louisiana and was named Teacher of the year at her school in her first year, believes teachers could do for students what was done for her.

“We are sometimes mirrors, or windows, for our students for what is possible for them; to see an individual who is successful in their community and be able to learn from them in a positive way,” she said.