Race and Education in the U.S.: CNM’s Brandon Thompson

Story and photos by Audrey Callaway Scherer, senior reporter

After moving to the U.S. from the Caribbean and comparing race relations and educational systems, Brandon Thompson, a nursing major, shared things he likes about the states and ideas about how the U.S. could tackle its problems in those two areas.

Thompson stands next to anatomical posters and a model of a heart in a study room at the Main campus’s library

A few things he saw in the Caribbean education system that he thinks America could consider include holding kids back when they don’t perform to a standard, adding trade skill paths in schools for those who are less academically inclined, and providing private schools for kids in special education with teachers specifically equipped to handle their needs.

Regarding ethnic relations, he said he didn’t really experience racial issues in the Caribbean and thinks the social construct of race will continue to be an issue as long as people keep reminding each other that it exists in every day situations.

“The cultural aspect was definitely eye-opening,” he said. “I’m glad I live in the west. In New Mexico specifically, I don’t experience race-related issues, so I’m happy about that.”

Thompson works at Van Buren Middle School in Albuquerque and took a job in education deliberately to compare the two systems. How youths are educated and what is being taught to them is basically what will be carried on into the future, he said.

“I think in order to understand America, I have to start from the root which is our education,” he said.

The systems are significantly different, he said. The class sizes in the Caribbean are around 50 students to each teacher, and most schools are “shift schools” in which students alternate each year between morning shifts (7:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m.) and evening shifts (12:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.) five days a week.

One thing he likes about the states is that its system helps people get an education, especially financially, whereas in the Caribbean, families must pay for everything and student loans are very hard to get, he said.

Parents with less money sometimes would have their kids alternate days and share notes because paying for all kids would cost too much, and if they didn’t have any money, the kids wouldn’t have the option to go to school.

When these students’ parents have to pay, at a young age they learn the value of money and time, he said. They understand they can’t waste any arguing with teachers or not doing assignments.

Student loans are based solely off your address, so if someone lived in a bad area they would not get the loan, even if they had all As and Bs, he said. Usually everything is out of pocket – he likes how the states don’t discriminate in education based on one’s address.

One issue he wants to see changed in the states’ educational system is that students aren’t held back when they underperform.

The problems start early when students keep getting passed forward without the skills they need to keep up, he said, and it compounds so that eventually they reach high school and either must drop out or get passed once again through graduation, still without having learned those skills.

He has classmates at CNM that have trouble in things like fundamental math and he said he can’t blame them – it’s the teachers that passed them through in elementary, middle and high school.

“That’s one thing I really hope changes – that they stop pushing us forward and teaching to the test, and hold us back. I know it sounds bad, but we will benefit because they are the future,” he said.

In 4th grade in the Caribbean, students take their first exam, which determines if they will pass forward into 5th grade.

In 6th grade, students take a different exam, the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT), and the resulting grades determine which of their top five school choices they may go to in 7th grade when high school starts.

After a student’s grades get them into a high school, the grades further determine in which group they will be within their grade level – there are as many groups as there are letters in the school’s name and the first letter of the name is the most advanced level, he said.

If one excels in a class, they get moved out of that group to a higher class – a higher letter. If they do not pass a class, they do not move up to the next grade.

“They don’t hold you back and they do hold you back. That’s what I like in the system,” he said.

In 9th grade, students take classes for every subject the school offers over about seven class periods. How well they do in each subject determines both what they will study (what the student was best at) through the rest of high school – 10th and 11th grades, and what career path they will be set on in college.

Consequently, the subjects in the last two years of high school are studied deeply. Because it’s so rigorous, some students could leave high school and get jobs right away, he said, and in these cases, employers look for grades of 1, 2, or 3 on a scale of 7.

At the end of 10th grade, students take essay-based exams for each subject excluding math and English, which usually include 25-page research papers for which they must argue their points to an examination board, he said.

12th and 13th grades are the first two years in college, during which they have similar exams and after which students may move on to do their third year at one of the Caribbean’s specialized universities in the chosen field to get their bachelor’s degrees.

“So if I went to UWE, I wouldn’t see my friend if he was a carpentry major,” he said.

Being able to absorb each individual subject here in the U.S., as compared to the large amount of independent studying in the Caribbean, is definitely a benefit, he said.

Another thing in the Caribbean is that grades determine whether students may do an extracurricular activity, and the first years of each elective subject are for learning about the subject’s components and history – students don’t practice the subject until the second year.

Although schools will buy students for their skills and there are scholarships for sports, he said Caribbean instructors always teach the kids, What if you broke your leg? What will you fall back on? Students must still have the grades to represent a college on a sports team.

In the U.S., he doesn’t like how kids who are failing their core classes still get to be in certain electives, he said. It’s good to exercise, but he thinks if they’re failing math and English, they shouldn’t be able to do a sport until they bring those grades up.

“It is a cultural thing. You do not get to play outside if you do not do your homework,” he said.

The schools are the same way, he said. You do not get to join a sports team until you get good grades, which the Caribbean counts as a least a C.

He thinks there should be more technical skills taught in schools for those who aren’t as academically savvy, he said. U.S. schools should provide a system that supports that area of the population, and they should stop trying to make everyone doctors and lawyers.

“I’m not technically savvy. I cannot hammer a nail and to say that’s less of a job…it’s not less of a job, it’s probably even more. They’re gonna be taking my money,” he said. “That’s just what you’re good at.”

He thinks it’s a waste to direct taxpayers’ resources toward people doing things they know they’re not good at and thinks those people should be able to focus on something else, he said.

As he gets older, the young people will be implementing the laws that affect him, and similarly when he can’t go on his own roof he will need someone else to come out and know what they’re talking about, he said. Both people should be qualified and passionate in their fields.

“I’m passionate about it because, again, they’re my future,” he said.

Another thing he saw in the Caribbean that he thought might be effective in the U.S. would be moving toward private schools for special education with specially trained staff. In the current system, he said it’s not fair for teachers to have a constant juggle or for the students who get less instructional time.

“This is why I think they’re teaching to the test – they have paperwork to do, IEPs to do, not getting paid, no supplies, shortage in teachers, the list goes on and on and on. They’re counselors, they’re psychologists, they’re security guards, they’re the dean, they’re the mom, they’re the dad, they’re everything, AND they’re supposed to teach,” he said. “We’re humans, we’re gonna get burnt.”

Another thing he sees here that he didn’t back home is race issues, he said. He wonders why race is and continues to be an issue – from what he has learned in his classes at CNM, it is a social construct that was created to divide us.

In the Caribbean, when employers get resumes, they don’t judge race or gender by people’s names and sometimes don’t even ask for them – just their contact information, he said. They just judge you on the qualifications.

In the actual workforce, it is more that people come in and do their work, and if they don’t make it, it wasn’t a white man who prevented them from being successful – it was themselves. No white guy made the law to prevent them from succeeding, he said.

“But that’s one thing I see here . . . I don’t like those social constructs and division here in the states,” he said. “And I know it’s a cultural thing.”

He thinks everybody, including public officials, should stop reminding the population of things like race, because if we keep reminding everyone, it will never die. We already know what color we all are, he said.

When he watched the State of the Union, he saw the news keep mentioning that the woman who did the rebut to Trump was an African American and he asked himself, Why point that out? Why not critique her address?

“I’m not saying to forget our history, but to make things better I think we can lay off of it,” he said. “It exists because we are still reminding everybody to make sure to remember it exists.”

In addition to stopping the constant reminders of race, he thinks that not playing the “race card” can help racial issues in the U.S. system. He knows the race card exists, but he doesn’t play it or bring it onto himself, he said.

“I just don’t portray it and I think people pick up on that. When you command or walk with authority and respect, and you’re assertive, I think they would not play the race card on you,” he said. “Don’t be the victim, basically. I think that will help us change it, too.”

The same thing for gender, he said. In the State of the Union, some women were wearing white and they were singled out as being rebellious, when in fact they were projecting inclusivity and diversity. They were sitting on both sides of the aisle – among Democrats and Republicans.

“But they’re calling them out as women being women and acting out and seeking attention. So yes, it applies to gender and we need to stop it,” he said.

There is a lot of brain drain in the Caribbean, he said, as most countries are developing or not developed and there are few job opportunities, especially that pay well. When people leave, those countries suffer.

The U.S. benefits because these immigrants bring their skills and knowledge, are building this country and are spending their money here. Even when they send money back home, the conversion rates make it so that the amount they help their families is way more significant than the affect on the U.S., he said.

He moved here in February of 2017, after Trump had become president. There were a lot of factors and it was not an easy choice, he said. Even his employer at the time wondered if it was the right thing to do, especially after his promotion and starting his master’s degree. He had also just gotten engaged to an American.

“I like the states, I dreamed about living here,” he said. “It’s just different. There’s so many laws and bylaws and loopholes in the bylaws.”

He said he thinks he will stay in the states but as a dual-citizen, as a Jamaican and an American.

Although the bachelor’s in business that he got in the Caribbean transferred to the states as two classes short of a master’s, he doesn’t think he will use his business degree. His first choice was to get into the medical field, so at CNM he started fresh for a degree in nursing.

He said what he found at CNM is that professors are knowledgeable and have experience in the fields of both teaching and of their trades, and that CNM actually takes value in students’ education.

A display in the Main Campus library holds models of various body parts for students studying related subjects.

Thompson is a classmate of the writer.

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