Black History Month reminds us that Black history is American history and more importantly it is our present. Mary McLeod Bethune was an educator and activist who championed women’s rights and dedicated her life to enhancing the lives of Black people through education.
Her words are a good outline of the important work that still needs to be done to make education inclusive and successful for all children, but specifically the Black boys and girls who are historically left behind.
The whole world opened to me when I learned to read. —Mary McLeod Bethune
Historically, Black people have recognized education as a pathway to freedom. We know this because of the stories of the slaves who read in secret, the small schoolhouses that arose in homes and churches and the many Black heroes who laid the groundwork for education in this country.
Education and the opportunity to learn was and always has been a pathway to freedom and opportunity.
However, Black students still face many barriers to education in this country. Instead of welcoming them into classrooms and supporting them through their educational journey they are victims of the bias, racism and sexism that have long plagued this country.
Policing Blackness in Schools
It was only in 1870 that the first Black high school opened it’s doors in Washington D.C. Unfortunately, 140 years later, Black people are still fighting for their right to learn and receive a quality education.
While some of the discriminatory laws have changed, Black children are still sent the message that they do not belong in school. Schools are many Black children’s first experience with the criminalization and policing of Blackness. Black children are disproportionately, suspended and expelled, referred to law enforcement and arrested.
The true worth of a race must be measured by the character of its womanhood. —Mary McLeod Bethune
Black women have a strong and painful history in this country. Black women and girls are often viewed as angry, loud, aggressive and hypersexual. This plays out in American classrooms where Black girls are disciplined for not conforming to gender norms and for existing at the intersection of race and gender. Many Black girls are suspended for minor infractions like dress code violations, talking back and defiance.
Instead of encouraging Black girls to come to school and develop healthy practices and a love for learning we perpetuate the falsehood that they do not belong in school. Black preschool girls make up 20 percent of preschool enrollment but are 54 percent of suspensions.
In the 2013-14 school year Black girls were 5.5 times more likely to be suspended than White girls. Black girls with disabilities were 3.5 times more likely to be suspended than White girls with disabilities. Although far fewer students are expelled than suspended, Black girls were over six times more likely to be expelled than White girls.
The Gaps That Unchecked School Discipline Creates
In recent years we have made strides in closing the opportunity gap but far too many Black children continue to lag behind. In 2015, only 18 percent of Black fourth-graders were proficient in reading. Although graduation rates have improved, ACT estimates that only between 3-17 percent of Black test-takers were ready for college.
There are many reasons why these gaps exist. The most simple is that students are not learning if they aren’t in school. Although it sounds simple, Black students are still fighting for their seat in the classroom.
Learning is an opportunity to access the world and live dreams although it is not a guarantee for people of color. Far too many Black children never receive the opportunity to dream and succeed.
We have been tracking school discipline for several years. While some states are beginning to address the problem, there are common myths about school discipline and there are really no good reasons to exclude girls from school. They do belong, they do not make schools less safe or learning environments more disruptive.
Here’s some common school discipline myths:
Myth 1: Students are excluded from the classroom for seriously disruptive or violent behavior.
False: Schools are using a growing number of out-of-school suspensions for day-to-day disruptions that do not warrant a suspension like defiance and noncompliance. These low-level infractions often include lateness, truancy, dress code violations and other offenses that don’t pose a threat to anyone.
Myth 2: Suspensions and expulsions bring order to schools.
False: schools that have moved away from exclusionary discipline practices have not experienced higher levels of disruption and disorder and have experienced higher ratings of safety and improved attendance and achievement. Order and safety in schools starts with classroom management, counselors and a system that cares about its students.
Myth 3: Poverty and crime infested neighborhoods are the reason Black students are suspended.
False: Studies have found that race, not poverty, is a predictor for suspensions. Even though we know Black students do not commit worse offenses. They have also found that disparities in discipline still exist in well-resourced suburban districts.
The drums of Africa still beat in my heart. They will not let me rest while there is a single Negro boy or girl without a chance to prove his worth. —Mary McLeod Bethune
Black children deserve the opportunity to learn and exist, and it is our responsibility to make sure that they have that opportunity. Now more than ever, it is important for parents, teachers and community members to advocate for Black children in schools and in our communities. We need to go out of our way to send the message that we care, support them and their education.
In honor of Black History Month, look up your neighborhood school’s discipline policy and use this tool to discover if it is free from bias; make sure Black children are reflected in curriculum and in your home libraries; encourage a Black child to reach for the stars and offer them praise and support. This Black History Month and for the rest of the year, let’s support Black students on the road to education and success.