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May 1, 2019
Vol. 76
No. 8

What Do Black Adolescents Need from Schools?

Understanding the barriers that students of color face is key to building on their academic success.

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What do black adolescents need from schools? This has been one of the more complex and enduring questions at the heart of schooling practices for education leaders, teachers, and youth workers. Research has long apprised us of a seemingly infinite range of systemic inequalities that chip away at the resiliency of this cultural group. In my work with Chicago teens, I have seen the devastating impact of these inequalities: These young people are amassed in hypersegregated, poorly funded schools, where they sit in crowded classrooms with outdated curricular materials and underqualified teachers. What I have learned from my experiences is the importance of understanding the significant challenges these youth face, both within and outside of school, and of recognizing and building on their innate capacities as developing adolescents.

Stereotyped and Misunderstood

I've been working in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) for just over two decades—first as a teacher and now as a youth mentor. In 1999, I exited the teaching profession after six years to pursue my graduate studies. It was during this time that I developed and launched a school-based mentoring program designed to assist students (grades 6–12) in surmounting institutional, as well as personal, hurdles that I believed blocked academic success. The notion was born out of my own experiences as a CPS student—one who felt misunderstood, labeled, and rebuked because of my brown skin. As both a student and teacher, I witnessed the lack of interventions addressing the multiple challenges confronting my ethnic peers. Throughout my graduate studies, I maintained that school-based mentoring could provide safe spaces for young people to vent their issues and resolve them through group dialogue with adults and classmates. Since the program's first run, it has been hosted in dozens of schools across the district, where educators realize that in order to reach students academically, they must first know where they "live" socially, culturally, and emotionally.

Long-Standing In-School Barriers

To start with, the Brown v. Board mandate has yet to be fulfilled (Bell, 2004; Moore & Lewis, 2014). Black families, particularly from low-socioeconomic communities, still face limited access to diverse instructional settings where their children can take advantage of high-quality curriculum, technology, and teachers. Brown's less-than-thorough implementation cannot be overstated, as we still find vast majorities of black and Latinx students isolated in America's largest public school systems, where poverty levels exceed their state's average. Given this fact, black students are more likely to attend underfunded schools with outdated textbooks, lagging technology, and underpaid teachers who are less likely to be state certified or even to remain in the profession long enough to reach tenure (Santoro, 2018).
Research further informs us that black youth remain culturally misunderstood in schools. Racial disparities for these adolescents are perpetuated in two essential ways: (1) through biased institutional practices, and (2) through stereotypes tied to misconceptions of racial difference (Forman, 2017; Lewis & Diamond, 2015). With respect to the latter, black students are often labeled in schools, and in broader society, as low-achieving, cognitively delayed, aggressive, loud, or deviant (Hall, 2006; Kunjufu, 2010).
Regarding institutional practices, disproportionate sanctions—such as suspensions and expulsions—against black youth, based on racial stereotypes, give rise to feelings of anger and resentment toward schools. It is this wrongheaded and unreceptive treatment that reduces these students' affinity for education and their chances at success, pushing them, as studies have shown, out of their schools and into higher risk of poverty, poor health, or incarceration (Forman, 2017; Morris, 2015).
Any educator paying attention will tell you that when youth enter the school building each morning, they don't leave their out-of-school troubles at the threshold. They bring into hallways and classrooms whatever burdens weigh most heavily on their shoulders in that moment. As we know, this affects how readily students engage and grasp curricular content, on top of how they interact with their teachers and peers.
When I first began mentoring black adolescents, many of their openly expressed concerns revolved around unfair treatment by staff and faculty—conflicts tied to biased institutional practices and misperceptions of culture. My mentees often shared stories of how teachers misperceived their playful interactions with peers as overly aggressive, if not threatening, which resulted in some form of punishment. Over the past few years, however, additional issues and problems have made their way into our conversations, specifically related to employment burdens, community violence, and trauma—emerging out-of-school hurdles compounding their in-school hurdles.

Out-of-School Hurdles

1: Employment Burdens

Many of the adolescents that I work with live in neighborhoods where job opportunities have been emptied out and thus centralized into the city's downtown business sector, making viable employment for their guardians more difficult to come by. Nationwide, the domino effect of scarce living-wage employment for adults has morphed into a new type of "child support," where adolescents become secondary household wage earners to help make ends meet and procure food, clothes, and shelter (Burd-Sharps & Kristen, 2017; Sum et al., 2014). So low-income black youth have to focus not only on their academic success, but also on their wage-earner responsibilities. When my mentees walk into our program sessions after red-eye shifts at fast food restaurants or grocery stores, they often fail to show the same kind of responsiveness or alertness that their nonworking peers do. Their tired gaze speaks volumes of wanting nothing more than to recuperate from the previous night, sometimes at the expense of a math or English test to be taken that day. Without knowing students' out-of-school responsibilities, educators can easily misinterpret this fatigued look as disengagement, boredom, or a refusal to comply.

2: Community Violence

Gang and gun violence render another distinct "look" for my mentees. Buried in their eyes and in their voices exists an everyday fear of having to walk to and from school, of going to the store, of visiting a friend down the street, or of just sitting out on their porch. Many of them have spoken of the dangers of simply crossing the street and entering rival gang or youth territories. Nationally, black adolescents from urban, economically deprived communities are at the greatest risk of being exposed to gang and gun violence (CDC, 2018; Gaylord-Harden et al., 2017). Young black males, in particular, have higher rates of being mugged, stabbed, or shot (CDC, 2018). The full impact of violence in the lives of black youth is immeasurable. The argument that they somehow become hardened or desensitized to muggings or shootings is false. What they frequently do, however, is mask their emotions, compartmentalize their feelings, and give off an "I don't care" facade because the images and flashbacks of encountered violence are far too upsetting for them to bear.

3: Trauma

In my conversations with CPS psychologists and counselors, they attest to the unfortunate reality that the students they work with are bringing into schools the huge dynamic of trauma. There have been a number of mentees who, upon meeting one another for the first time, are intensely anxious and reclusive. These young people are suspicious of their surroundings as well as their peers; they jump at the slightest noise and they're irritable and guarded. For many of these students, violent memories fester. Some of my mentees have shared personal stories of being in serious car accidents or watching police arrest a parent or seeing friends shot at.
Though these moments of sharing can be cathartic, they reveal a direr picture: Our nation's most high-risk youth do not receive the adequate guidance and care needed to healthily cope with the traumatic episodes they're exposed to (Kirk & Hardy, 2014). Specifically, black youth living in divested communities face a lack of access to quality health care professionals who can help them process crises and overcome such adverse outcomes as mental distress, poor physical health, self-medication, and academic dropout (Sheats et al., 2018).

Minimizing the Impact

Although Chicago working-class neighborhoods are my primary lens for coming to know the personal difficulties facing the youth I mentor, let me be clear: The stressors my mentees have been venting about are by no means provincial or brand new. They are, in truth, socioeconomic afflictions that have weighed down black communities for some time. Yet, amid America's increasing economic and social disparity, these long-standing conditions have been intensified and are now blatantly crossing the threshold of schools, revealing themselves in students' academic performance and classroom behavior.
What do black adolescents need from their schools? To be sure, there is no modest answer to this question or quick fix to the problems these students face. I contend, however, that we must begin by rethinking and reinventing ways in which schools can function to minimize the economic, cultural, and social obstacles impeding black student success.

Bridging the Disparity Gap

Systemic economic isolation is known to be the strongest predictor of racial gaps in student achievement (Anderson, 2016). While federally mandated school integration is law, poor black and Latinx youth still cannot get a seat at the table of high-quality education. Despite this, there have been strong examples of individual schools seeing academic growth with their enrolled economically disadvantaged students of color. We have also seen federal attempts at leveling the playing field with President Obama's 2017 "Stronger Together" school improvement grant program, which rewarded financially struggling school districts for improving teacher instruction and creating better conditions for student success. Although the program failed to make any significant systemic change, more funding initiatives of this type are necessary to ensure that states and districts can provide quality schooling—sound infrastructure, healthy food options, highly trained educators, Advanced Placement classes, and so on—for all students.

Dispelling Misperceptions

Much of the connective tissue of how we interact with and treat black adolescents is part of societal perceptions of black people overall that are grounded in (un)conscious stereotypes and racism. Cultural misconceptions guide the hand of punishment, inducing many students to disengage and withdraw. Thus, along with equalizing economic opportunities, black students need education leaders, teachers, and youth workers to critically examine their personal biases, feelings, and fears about black teens. How much do they really know about the youth they work with, outside of skewed media images and stochastic experiences? Without question, if schools desire to have an intellectually transformative effect on black youth, then they should know who these students are beyond the grade sheets, test scores, and school behaviors.
Taking time to develop deeper perspectives of black youth provides educators with the prospect of dissolving racial and class prejudices that negatively impact their teaching practices. It also affords students more genuine opportunities to learn and succeed in an environment that is otherwise viewed by them as culturally oppositional. Two of the most notable ways educators can promote academic achievement among black adolescents are by (1) reflecting on their personal frames of reference of black youth and how these epistemologies affect instruction and learning, and (2) not prejudging students based on their outward appearances, explicit behaviors, or academic and behavioral pasts. Instead, educators must see black youth in their fullness—recognizing their talents, gifts, assets, ideas, and beliefs. From this perspective, schools can improve on methods used to reach black students academically; in return, these youth might be able to connect more readily with their learning institutions.

Room to Breathe, Space to Ventilate

Schools, for a number of young people, are an extension of their homes, with educators, social workers, and counselors acting as surrogate family members. This association explains why so many black youth still come to school despite the fact that they have worked long hours the previous night or have to take a path to school that is literally perilous. To gather the requisite insights for knowing who black adolescents are, schools must become open and genuinely trusting places where teens can speak their realities. One fundamental way to accomplish this is by consistently providing students with someone trustworthy to talk to, preferably in a safe location on school grounds. In that time and place, black students can individually or collectively rethink, explore, and organize constructive ways of handling whatever troubles weigh most heavily on their shoulders.
For me, school-based mentoring has been that conduit. In my mentoring sessions, students will discuss anything from classwork and grades to relationships with peers or relatives, and from city violence to traumatic neighborhood episodes. Out of those moments, I have seen students not only walk away with a renewed perspective on their choices outside of school, but also with a greater sense of how they can approach academic achievement and all of its expectations within school.

Tipping the Scales

The needs of black adolescents are so great because the struggles they face are profuse—from racial injustice and insult to living in war zones. Yet despite the odds stacked against them, black youth possess the strengths, assets, and hope to be successful at whatever they pursue. These young people will live; they will survive. But at what cost?
As educators, we can certainly assist black teens in fulfilling their needs by first recognizing them as fully human, with innate capacities to accomplish their goals. We should never cease to be their advocates. For many black students, educators represent that single lifeline between their aspirations and the reality of becoming a healthy, productive adult. If we are truly engaged and invested in their futures, whether we witness the fruits of our labor or not, we should know that the earnest work we put in can assuredly tip the scales their way.

Guiding Questions

➛ Can you say, unequivocally, that every black student in your school has a trustworthy adult in whom they can confide? If not, how could you come together as a staff to ensure this happens?

➛ What actions can you take to better recognize the individual assets and strengths of the black adolescents you serve?

References

Anderson, M. B. (2016). Building better narratives in black education. Washington, D.C.: Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute, UNCF.

Bell, D. (2004). Silent covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the unfulfilled hopes for racial reform. New York: Oxford University Press.

Burd-Sharps, S., & Kristen, L. (2017). Promising gains, persistent gaps: Youth disconnection in America. New York: Measure of America of the Social Science Research Council.

CDC Violence Prevention. (2018). Retrieved from www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/youthviolence/schoolviolence/index.html

Forman, J. (2017). Locking up our own: Crime and punishment in black America. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Gaylord-Harden, N. K., Bai, G. J., & Simic, D. (2017). Examining a dual-process model of desensitization and hypersensitization to community violence in African American male adolescents. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 30(5), 463–471.

Hall, H. R. (2006). Mentoring young men of color: Meeting the needs of African American and Latino students. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Kirk, D. S., & Hardy, M. (2014). The acute and enduring consequences of exposure to violence on youth mental health and aggression. Justice Quarterly, 31(3), 539–67.

Kunjufu, J. (2010). Reducing the black male dropout rate. Chicago, IL: African American Images.

Lewis, A. E., & Diamond, J. B. (2015). Despite the best intentions: How racial inequality thrives in good schools. New York: Oxford University Press.

Moore, J. L., & Lewis, C. W. (Summer 2014). 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education: Educational advancement or decline? The Journal of Negro Education, 83(3), 191–193.

Morris, M. W. (2015). Pushout: The criminalization of black girls in schools. New York: The New Press.

Santoro, D. A. (2018). Demoralized: Why teachers leave the profession they love and how they can stay. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Sheats, K. J., Irving, S. M., Mercy, J. A., Simon, T. R., Crosby, A. E., Ford, D. C., et al. (2018). Violence-related disparities experienced by black youth and young adults: Opportunities for prevention. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 55(4), 462–469.

Sum, A., Khatiwada, I., Mykhaylo, T., & Ross, M. (2014). The plummeting labor market fortunes of teens and young adults. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution.

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