First Person

First Person: Black boys in ‘book deserts’ don’t get inspiring literary experiences. Let’s do better.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Nashville first-grader John Little reads a story at the kickoff of Tennessee's "Read to be Ready" initiative.

Black boys are unarguably the most vulnerable population in our school system.

They are suspended and pushed out of schools at a higher rate than any other student population. They are disproportionately likely to find themselves labeled as needing special education services. They are more likely to drop out of school, are incarcerated at a higher rate than their teenage peers, and are less likely to have post-secondary learning experiences.

It should be no surprise to see educators pursuing drastic reforms, including establishing single-sex schools, to counteract these effects. These initiatives are great. But it is also up to educators to come up with solutions for the thousands of black males in urban public schools who do not have access to these initiatives.

I’m suggesting we take the pressure off of individual teachers and parents and focus on advocating for — and building partnerships to create — more literate communities.

Too often, black males students’ schools and communities give them access only to uninspired, rote literacy experiences. The students are less likely to have access to literary field trips and experiences like plays, poetry slams, library visits, author visits, and drama clubs.

Many black males live in communities where most black-owned bookstores with specialty titles have closed. They are less likely to find either larger chain or indie bookstores within a close distance of their communities. They do not have access to book festivals, large or small.

In schools, the “book deserts” can be even worse. Additionally, school-level policies, like rules restricting students to checking out one book per week, can reduce students’ opportunities to develop vocabulary and explore different genres.

Black males in urban settings are also more likely to find themselves in financially strapped schools where leaders have scrapped Reading Recovery services or the reading specialist. Their teachers may not have access to training focused on on motivating children to read.

Ironically, literacy is not always the focus or specialty area of school leaders. This can lead to buying “teacher-proof” materials, instead of using funds to inundate the school with books, magazines, and nonfiction audio, print, and electronic materials.

We know all of these issues exist. But as report cards roll around every year, black males are made to pay for this inequality.

They are made to pay with comments related to their “grit.” They are made to pay with frustration about their lack of progress expressed by teachers, parents, and administrators. They are made to pay with behavior referrals as pressured teachers lose patience. They are made to pay when school administrators eliminate recess or when schools limit recess to 20 minutes instead of a full hour. They are made to pay by being forced to do rote tasks instead of having interesting, inspiring literacy experiences.

The real issues here are inequality and the fact that many black males live in book deserts.

Literacy professionals like me see that the lack of authentic literacy experiences eliminates the motivation for black boys to read. Those issues lead black boys to get bored, and then they are pushed out of school through suspensions. The emotional toll that this takes on many black males who fail at literacy should not be ignored.

It is time to reclaim authentic literacy that inspires and motivates black males. Black males need access to books which reflect their experiences and motivation in the form of purposeful and leisure reading. We know leisure reading, and the freedom to exercise choice in reading, are what inspire children to read when no one is looking. These opportunities can also inspire black males to read and recite their favorite poems and make up their own.

There are so many ways to inspire black males to read. Equally important are:

  • the social justice framework, or using news stories, essays, speeches, and biographies focused on real community issues that need to change
  • debates and town hall meetings, where black males can use critical thinking and discuss topics such as police brutality, sports, friendship, family issues, and tragedies
  • the ethnic studies approach, in which black males learn black history narratives and events, which allow them to develop a passion for learning who they are in relation to the greater world.

As we embark on a new school year, we must do so with the idea that we have the power to change this reality. Book deserts in urban communities can be eliminated as easily as they were made in the first place. Our advocacy efforts must be community wide, district wide, school wide, as well as in local classrooms.

We must do our part to forge community partnerships to change this reality — or black males will continue to be treated as both victims and perpetrators of their own reality, and punished for being both.

This piece first appeared on Literacy & NCTE, the blog of the National Council of Teachers of English.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.