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Education Lab is a project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

November 21, 2014 at 5:00 AM

Not a pretty picture: A call to action for black girls in school

Update, 11:05 a.m.: This post was updated to include information about students at Chief Sealth High School winning a film award related to race and education.

Across the country, educators are talking about new ways to handle student discipline, and while there is broad acknowledgement that punitive, zero-tolerance policies have fallen disproportionately on African-American boys, a recent report points out that black girls are suspended at a rate six times that of whites — and at rates that also surpass those for Latino, Asian and white boys.

Though research shows that they do not engage in more frequent or serious misbehavior than other groups, African-American girls account for 43 percent of all female students arrested at school. They constitute only 17 percent of the nation’s female students.

Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls: A Call to Action for Educational Equity,” authored by the National Women’s Law Center and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, highlights these facts and attempts to quantify some of the long-range costs.

While there is an “assumption that all girls are doing fine in school,” the researchers found quite the opposite:

Girls of color are graduating at far lower rates that white girls and boys … resulting in severe economic consequences for African-American women and their families.”

On average, a black woman with a four-year college degree earns $657,000 more over her lifetime than a black woman with only a high school diploma, the report says.

This week, 13 students at Seattle’s Chief Sealth High School won a major award, the Gold Jury Prize for Youth Visions, from the Social Justice Film Festival for their film “Riffing on the Dream,” which comments on a number of realities faced by black students. (You can watch the whole thing here or fast forward to the 12:39 point to hear a particularly relevant section.)

While educators take some hard hits in the 30-minute piece, Paul Fischburg, the Chief Sealth history teacher who helped spearhead the project, said reaction from his colleagues has been nothing but positive – so much so that the film is now being used as a teacher training tool.

“When you’re part of something from the day you are born, it’s hard to recognize it,” said Fischburg, referring to institutional racism. “But as a staff, we’ve taken that step. We are committed to talking about how this system works.”

The “Unlocking Opportunity” report says that racial stereotypes and gender discrimination combine to pose particularly daunting academic hurdles: Black girls tend to receive harsher discipline than their white classmates for “non-conforming behavior,” they are less likely to have access to advanced math and science courses, and more likely to be victims of sexual harassment.

Several students in the Chief Sealth video allude to similar experiences.

The result of such discouragement? Nationally, high school graduation rates are lower for black girls than for any other category of female students except Native Americans; of those who were high school seniors in 2013, almost two-thirds scored “below basic” on standardized math tests.

More than 40 percent of black women who do not graduate from high school are living in poverty by age 25.

Comments | More in News | Topics: discipline, race

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