Black girls and trauma

Here’s how one Memphis school is changing the way it disciplines girls of color

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Students at Aspire Coleman listen during a sixth-grade math class. The Memphis charter school has changed its disciplinary practices in recent years to be more informed about the effects of emotional trauma, especially among female black students.

When a 12-year-old girl entered her fifth elementary school in five years, she arrived with a lengthy suspension record — and a past filled with sexual violence and neglect.

Chronic conflict at home had made it hard for her to listen in class and avoid fights with peers. But at Aspire Coleman, a state-run charter school in Memphis, she felt heard by her teachers for the first time. The seventh-grader is poised to finish her first full school year suspension-free.

“I used to get into more drama and fights at school,” said the girl, whose name is withheld to protect her identity. “I was just really angry, and then I’d get embarrassed when teachers yelled at me. But here, I don’t get yelled at like that. We just talk.”

Leaders at Aspire Coleman, whose 525 students are mostly black and poor, have been revamping their disciplinary practices based on gender, with a special focus on girls of color who have experienced trauma. They now offer separate advisory classes to support girls and boys, and have trained staff on how to work with students who have been abused or neglected.

After three years, suspensions are down by two-thirds school-wide, and are well below the national rate for girls of color.

“Education can never be a one-size-fits-all approach,” said Principal Owen Ricciardi, “so why would we treat discipline any different?”

Researchers increasingly point to emotional trauma as the root of disciplinary problems that lead black girls, as a group, to be suspended or expelled six times more frequently than girls of any other race — more often than white boys, too. Trauma can range from abuse and neglect to homelessness and family dysfunction.

The data has school leaders across the nation rethinking their disciplinary policies. Last fall, the White House co-hosted a conference on the issue that drew representatives of at least 22 school systems from 15 states, including Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which oversees Aspire Coleman. The collective goal was to learn how to build more supportive climates that help black girls overcome childhood trauma and focus on academics, leading to fewer disciplinary infractions.

“The trauma a student experiences is often silent or invisible when that student is at school,” explains Rebecca Epstein, executive director of the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, which helped to spearhead the conference. “It’s harder for teachers to recognize and it requires training if you want to shift a school climate. Everyone in a school, from the bus driver to the principal, needs to be educated on signs of trauma, on the background of childhood trauma, and the trauma that can be unique to girls of color.”

Black girls comprise only 8 percent of the nation’s students, but represent 14 percent of those who receive one or more out-of-school suspensions, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection.

And researchers say time missed from school due to suspensions increases the odds of more disciplinary issues, dropping out of school, unwanted pregnancies, or being caught in the juvenile justice system.

The challenges hit home in Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which takes over the state’s lowest-performing schools and assigns them to charter operators like Aspire. Among the ASD’s 33 schools, most of which are in Memphis, more than 15 percent of female students have been suspended during the last three years. The vast majority of those girls are black.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Aspire Coleman mixes genders in academic classes but separates them in advisory support sessions.

At Aspire Coleman, almost 97 percent of the student body is black, and 48 percent are girls of color. During its first year as a charter school beginning in 2014, administrators suspended 15 percent of the school’s students, equating to a lot of missed instruction time. Ricciardi vowed to reduce that rate to zero and started out by developing gender-based approaches to discipline. Teachers were trained about the challenges that black girls face in poor neighborhoods, often causing them to act out. Next they learned about restorative justice approaches that build a positive school climate by emphasizing conversation, empathy and reconciliation.

“We’re trying to get educators to buy into the ‘why’ behind how kids act,” said Queria Nunnley, the assistant principal who has shepherded the new approach. “We don’t want them to see a student as acting bad. We want them to ask, ‘Why is this student acting out? What supports do they need?’”

While research on the academic effects of separating students by gender is mixed, educators at Aspire Coleman say gender-based disciplinary tactics have helped in one crucial way.

“We’ve found that girls are much more likely to open up about what’s going on if they are broken off into a group of their own gender,” said Breonna Ponder, who helps provide gender-based programs through Communities in Schools. “We can get deep with struggles that girls in this school disproportionately deal with — like how to be appropriate on social media, how to say no when a boy pressures them, or how to resolve conflict when they have two friends fighting.”

Chantavia Burton, chief of student equity and access for the state-run district, hopes the school’s lessons can be extrapolated to the ASD’s other schools.

“We’ve seen on a national scale the focus on school-to-prison pipelines, and that’s led to a focus on disparities in discipline practices for men of color,” Burton said. “We’re glad those conversations are happening, but we recognize there hasn’t been as big of a focus on the women in our schools. We want to change that. … Women in these communities bear burdens silently. It’s not talked about openly; girls internalize. We in education have to recognize that and realize that just suspending girls who are angry or acting out might not help them on the road to rehabilitation.”

Schools can start, Epstein said, simply by asking students what they are struggling with and what they need. Sometimes the difference is as simple as knowing that girls who have been abused by men would do better in a female teacher’s classroom.

Such was the case for the 12-year-old student who arrived at Aspire Coleman with a history of sexual abuse. Administrators asked her if she’d prefer a male or female teacher.

“It can be difficult for me with male teachers,” the girl acknowledged. “I feel like those personal things about me, the things that have made school hard for me, those get paid attention to here.”

'Each One Teach One'

This Denver program is tackling the literacy gap. Trump’s budget proposal puts it at risk.

Greenwood students Ja'zione and Arinze practice spelling the word "possessions" at the Each One Teach One literacy program. (Photo by Marissa Page)

School has been out for weeks at Marie L. Greenwood Academy in Montbello, but on a recent weekday morning three students sit around a table littered with neon-hued notecards and richly illustrated books. They listen attentively as longtime Denver Public Schools teacher Mary Ann Bash leads a lesson on “Ubiquitous,” a picture book about ancient organisms.

“What’s the oldest life form?” Bash asks.

The table is silent for a moment. Then one student, a soon-to-be fifth grader named Marissa, lights up. “Bacteria!” she shouts. And she’s right.

“She learned that from a book in 3rd grade,” Bash said. “They don’t forget anything they’ve learned here.”

This level of comprehension is exactly the objective of Each One Teach One, an after-school and summer program Bash created a decade ago to narrow the 30-million-word literacy gap for low-income students and students learning English throughout Denver. Now, all that is at risk as the federal program that is the main funding source for Each One Teach One and programs like it nationwide will be cut if the Trump administration’s proposed 2018 budget passes in its current form.

Already, Each One Teach One is coping with budget problems. Its initial five-year federal grant expired at the end of April, and the U.S. Department of Education denied the program’s application for a waiver that would have extended funding for another year. As a result, Bash said she had to cap summer enrollment — and will not be able to run after-school programming for the 2017-18 school year.

Bash said the federal grant funded 51 percent of Each One Teach One in previous summers, which was supplemented this year with a combination of private funding and DPS support.

All of the after-school programming, which includes a horticulture club, biking club, literacy service and English classes for parents learning the language, was federally funded. Bash said Each One Teach One’s after-school program will cease to exist unless it can find an alternate funding source.

The program, which combines intensive literacy training with hands-on activities such as art, gardening and biking, started in 2007 at College View Elementary in southwest Denver. Variations on the program have since run in seven schools, and Each One Teach One has operated at Greenwood in the primarily Latino Montbello neighborhood for the past eight years. The summer program runs mornings through the end of June.

Each One Teach One also includes instruction for parents for whom English is not their first language. Some of these parents in turn teach sections of the program’s classes in Spanish and English.

Students work in small groups of up to five, diving into thick picture books rife with illustrations. As they learn new vocabulary words, many based off the drawings and not solely found in the text, they practice spelling and use. Once they’ve learned a word, they write them on color-coded index cards — “keys to the future,” as Bash calls them — and carry them on lanyards.

Bash said she writes all of Each One Teach One’s curriculum and selects the books, which explore themes of the natural world and “giving back to your community.”

“We’ll talk about a word in the book like tendrils, and then we’ll go out into the garden and see what a tendril actually looks like,” said Micheala Carbonneau, a first grade teacher at Oakland Elementary and first-time Each One Teach One instructor. “It goes beyond the book’s vocabulary… They actually experience these words in a meaningful way.”

Closing the literacy gap for students learning English takes a lot of time and individualized attention. According to data from the 2014-16 school years, 58 percent of Each One Teach One participants narrowed the 30-million-word gap, which is believed to increase over time without rigorous instruction.

“The gap gets bigger and bigger for students that had less of this rich oral learning,” Bash said. “When they don’t have that, they don’t get as much out of their classroom instruction, and then they go home and don’t get it reinforced and the gap just gets bigger.”

Art start

Nearly half of Detroit schools offered no music or art last year. Next year could be different.

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Students learn to play violin at Spain Elementary-Middle School, one of 21 Detroit schools that offered instrumental music last year. Nearly half of Detroit schools had neither music nor art.

The new Detroit school board is trying to address one of the most persistent complaints about city schools: The fact that roughly half of schools offer no formal instruction in music or art.

Numbers provided by the district show that of 81 schools serving general education students, 55 had no art teachers, and 51 had no instrumental or vocal music teachers during the school year that just ended.

Nearly half — 40 schools — offered neither music nor arts instruction.

“It’s been a tragic situation that kids were not exposed to that opportunity to take and study the arts,” said Willie McAlister, who heads the district’s office of fine arts. “When I was student, all of the schools in the district had art, music, dance, gym, a lot of different things.”

Arts programs took a big hit when the district was under the control of state-appointed emergency managers from 2009 until last year, said McAlister, a DPS grad who says he’s worked in the district for 39 years.

“The first thing they did was cut the arts.”

But Detroit voters last year elected a new school board that took control of the district in January and made the arts a priority, he said.

He’s been given $500,000 to hire 15 teachers who will each serve multiple schools next year, creating arts and music programs in 30 to 45 schools.

“We are moving forward with the restoration of our arts and music programs,” McAlister said.

During years without these programs, many schools lost the equipment they once had to theft or lack of maintenance. McAlister said the first step is to visit schools and assess the condition of instruments and other supplies.

The district aims to eventually offer two art components in every elementary and middle school, with some offering visual arts and instrumental music, others perhaps dance and vocal music.

Most of the city’s high schools have at least some kind of arts program. Large selective schools like Cass Tech, Renaissance and the Detroit School of the Arts offer several such programs. But some smaller high schools don’t currently offer music or art.

That’s a problem, said Alissa Novoselick, executive director of the organization Living Arts, which places teaching artists in Detroit-area schools.

“We need innovative thinkers,” Novoselick said. “Creative thinking and the arts are really in everything that we do … When we strip the arts from our schools, we are losing so much possibility of innovation and entrepreneurship.”

Novoselick said Living Arts teaching artists, who work in both district and charter schools, are often the only arts instructors in their schools. They typically work with one class of kids for two months, two days a week, though they train classroom teachers to continue arts instruction after they’re gone.

“These kids need a reason to come to school,” she said, adding that music and arts can “reach schools and teachers and kids at a level that isn’t going to come through textbooks and memorizing facts.”

Here’s the list of Detroit district schools that offered music and art last year. The list includes only general education schools. Special education, early childhood, adult education and vocational and technical programs are not included.