The Reality of Education for Black Students
My high school had the highest Academic Performance Index (API) score in the school district when I graduated in 2009. I remember touting that stat in college, usually in conversations about my predominately-white suburban upbringings, never with intentions to put others down but until recently I didn’t consider that very easily could have been a result. My high school was only five-years-old when I graduated; everything was new, there was never a question of resources and because of that I had opportunity. I was fully aware of my circumstances to succeed, but until college I didn’t have the consciousness to consider circumstances outside of that, circumstances that were the complete opposite of mine. Now, seven years later, in 2016 the land of the free and equal is facing problems in education our conscious cannot continue to ignore.
Over 40% of Black students in America attend a high-poverty school, meaning that over 40% of Black students attend a school in which between 76-and-100% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. The way socioeconomics are set up in America, “high-poverty school” also describes a student population that is predominately of color and located in an urban area. The correlating result of these schools being located in urban areas is that they feel the effects of lack of investment and infrastructure present in the surrounding environments. For example, in Detroit Public Schools you can find mushrooms growing and classrooms deteriorating in schools located in neighborhoods that have been neglected for years.
In 2015, it was reported that school districts, nationally, were spending less on staffing and educational resources in low-income schools. Within the last two years there has been a renewed conversation on segregated schooling. Let me repeat that: In 2015 and 2016 there is data, analysis, and conversation that schools are segregated in America.
It should not take much to imagine how consistent lack of investment in already high-poverty schools could impact the futures of Black students. When I think back to all of the doors that were opened to me as a default of my settings, and the opportunities that came as a result there is no denying the systematic favoritism of Whiteness in education.
Janay Watts, a restorative justice practitioner working on her Masters of Arts in Education, describes school for Black youth as a “hostile place” and she often finds herself having to check other teachers and help them to be proactive about building relationships with their Black students.
“What I’m realizing…knowing the history of this education system, it was never designed for Black students to be a part of it,” Watts said in a phone interview, “Those ideologies are deeply entrenched in policy to the classroom. The politics in education allow schools to do whatever they want with these students and they justify it how they want to. The schooling system is designed to control young people and even higher education is the same way, molding people into something.”
Like most students, college was a transformative experience for me. For the first time in my life I felt like I was a part of a Black community, not just the Black “group” of kids at school. Despite the jump in numbers of Black students at school, we were still only 3% of the student population, just below 1000 Black students out of 33,000 total. The student demographics of higher education institutions serve as a reflection of society on a larger scale, providing a concrete example to back up Watt’s belief that these institutions are molding us into something.
As of 2012, about 15% of students in college are Black students, considering the history of low Black collegiate student enrollment, 15% is a high number. However, at seven out of the top 10 “most diverse colleges”, Black students make up less than 10% of the student body. This is a common statistic for many colleges, even more so at schools that aren’t labeled “diverse”. Not only are Black student communities small, the numbers for Black teachers on college campuses is just as small. In 2013, the percentage of Black college faculty across the nation was a minute 4%. There is a correlation between the academic success of students of color and the amount of learning they get in relation to ethnic studies; representation is important not just in the textbooks, but also in who’s teaching us.
So how do we advocate for a quality education? Is it even possible? Watts says no, and I have to agree with her. “I think we have to create what quality means to us,” she said.
Historically, Black folks have had to create their own pockets of consciousness, safety, and sustainability; education is no different. Below I shared some of the things I think we can do to be hands-on in creating a quality education for Black students:
- Join the movement and work with Black students on campus that have drafted demands and/or have effectively organized campaigns
- In California, Afrikan Black Coalition mobilized and campaigned HARD around prison divestment, which resulted in UC Berkeley divesting $25M from the private prison industry.
- Read up on Black student demands from around the country
- No demands? Organize a discussion group with your Black peers to analyze your campus climate in relation to Black students
- Research local school board, attend a meeting; regardless of our age the youth always need advocates
- Organize a school supplies drive to bring public attention to the issues in education surround a certain school/district
- Get a group of friends and volunteer at a school, learn first-hand what the school needs
- If you're in college, get with a local high school or middle school BSU and learn about their needs and how you can mobilize and work together