Supporting the Academic Success of Black Girls
By Andrea Barnes
Black girls are entering the “school-to-prison pipeline” at alarming rates, according to a report from the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies and the African American Policy Forum. The school-to-prison pipeline, which refers to the link between punitive disciplinary measures in school and subsequent involvement in the juvenile or criminal justice systems, is a recognized barrier for young black males. Black boys are suspended and expelled more frequently than any other demographic group; as a result, they are typically the focus of academic research and advocacy. The impact of school discipline on girls, particularly Black girls, is largely ignored by scholars, leading many stakeholders to believe they are not affected. However, a close review of the data tells a different story.
Analyzing U.S. Department of Education data on school suspensions for the 2011-2012 school year, Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected finds that race may be a more significant factor for females than it is for males. Black males were suspended more than three times as often as their White counterparts, while Black girls were suspended six times as often as their White counterparts.
The researchers utilized focus groups of school-age girls to further identify their achievement barriers. The girls describe their schools as chaotic environments that prioritize discipline over education and do not meet their emotional needs. Many of their challenges are gender-specific, including interpersonal violence, sexual harassment and bullying, teen pregnancy and parenting, and family caretaking responsibilities.
There are numerous reasons Black girls are underserved. Lifting them up requires a range of solutions at the school, district, and state levels. Federal policy can also spark and support change. The report makes several recommendations for supporting Black girls’ success in school:
- Review and revise policies that funnel girls into the juvenile justice system. Schools and districts can employ alternative discipline strategies that hold students accountable while keeping them in school. Approaches like Saturday school, afterschool detention, in-school suspension, and required community service have had varying success. However, these policies will only be effective if the school personnel who implement them are unbiased.
- Advance and expand programs that support girls who are pregnant, parenting, or otherwise assuming significant familial responsibilities. The traditional high school model is ineffectual for many non-traditional students, making multiple educational pathways essential. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) should be reauthorized to support educational alternatives, such as reengagement centers, high-quality charter schools equipped to address non-traditional student needs, competency –based learning, and twilight academies, among others.
- Address school discipline policy through ESEA. The reauthorization should consider the correlation between racial and gender disparities and suspension and expulsion rates as part of the school accountability structure. All students should receive a quality education, regardless of race or gender.
While Black boys experience the greatest disparities in educational outcomes, Black girls also have many challenges. As we seek out solutions for Black boys, we must also study and address girls’ unique needs.