College of Education

2021 Impact Report

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MR. ROUNDTREE: How this one-time rapper transformed himself into the principal of Booker T. Washington STEM Academy

by Mary Timmins | Photography By Fred Zwicky

James Roundtree with kids

Roundtree grew up on Chicago’s West Side. He’ll be the first to say that bad things were going on there, and he’s also the first to defend the “beauty in the slums that I was from.” Perhaps this sense of perspective helped power him past the many pitfalls of Chicago’s mean streets to the University of Illinois, where he took his time earning a history degree— years of study and hustle comprising, in his words, “the very longest undergraduate tour you could ever do.”

He sees how the systemic racism of American society breaches the walls of Booker T. Washington STEM Adacemy, aka BT-Dub, and penetrates the minds of many of the pupils themselves. Black and brown kids. Kids like he was. Kids born into and steeped lifelong in the cruel misunderstanding that they are somehow lesser beings in a rich country that lards its huge opportunities with incredible ruthlessness.

Kids who have got it in their genes to feel that they are not important, that they don’t matter. Genes from parents born into those same feelings, and from grandparents, and from generations before those generations, stretching back to slavery.

What does a school principal do to combat this? Help them feel better about themselves in as many ways as he can. Get out there in the circle drive off the lobby and greet the kids by name as they arrive. “What’s up, Tanisha? Look at that smile!” Help them see what structure and discipline really mean—like why it’s bad to fight, how fighting doesn’t solve problems, even though sometimes it seems to.

Connect with their parents and their community. Know the kids and help the kids know themselves. “There should be a space for students to come in here and be who they are, not what we want them to be,” he says.

Read the story in its entirety online at https://education.illinois.edu/news