School Culture Affects Black Student Achievement

By Selina Armstrong

School Culture Affects Black Student Achievement

As students prepare to return to school this fall - some for the first time in a year and a half - there are many things for parents and educators to consider. We are still in the midst of a pandemic and living in an environment where racial disparities are being brought to the forefront where they can no longer be swept under the rug to be ignored, tolerated, or forgotten.  

But it doesn’t mean we are there yet. Institutional racism runs so deep that I am unsure we fully recognize it, although it is present, asking to be uncovered and healed. It comes out in our student’s beliefs of themselves, their views of the world, their feelings of safety and connection (or lack thereof), and their survival behaviors. This is especially true for our Black communities. 

The truth is, many Black parents are hesitant to send their children back to school this fall, not only because of the uncertainty related to the pandemic but also due to systematic racism, bullying experienced by students, and the low expectations set forth by some administration and staff for Black students. 

And this topic is what fueled a lively conversation during a recent get together with friends. I sat there, in my dining room, listening as friend after friend, all of whom are highly educated professionals from nurses to educators to lawyers, shared experiences where they either … 

1) heard comments made by teachers or other school personnel that influenced how they viewed themselves and what they could potentially achieve or not achieve. 

2) were left out of AP class and National Honor Society discussions. 

3) were only considered for basic classes at a community college and not given any other options to explore or consider, such as more prominent schools.  

To some, there is still a limiting ideology that Black students don’t have what it takes to excel in AP or advanced courses. In fact, they are sometimes systematically not even considered for those programs. Rather, they are either discouraged from participating and/or not even made aware that they exist by the very people that are entrusted to provide them educational guidance.

As our conversation began to provoke more serious thought, I was reminded of a story my goddaughter once told me about her experience on the first day of high school. She was sent to the counselor’s office when she showed up to one of her AP classes because the teacher thought she must have been in the wrong class. These types of microaggressions are experienced by Black students day in and day out and it can take a toll on their well-being and overall success in school. Although confused and embarrassed at the time, my goddaughter also reflects on that day with a great sense of pride because, despite what her teacher may have thought, she felt confident in who she was and knew she belonged.  

All of this had us asking, What about today’s students? This isn’t just something from my generation or something that happened six years ago when my goddaughter was in high school. It spans across lineages and touches the children of today. 

The L.A. Report

A recent report entitled The Impact of Racial Bias on Black Students in L.A. Unified: How School Culture Affects Black Student Achievement and the Decisions About Returning to Campus During the Pandemic highlights the continued lack of acknowledging anti-black disparities within the district despite all the data and information that tells us Black students are historically excluded (a new term I’m using instead of “underrepresented” thanks to Dr. Kelebogile Zvobgo) from Gifted, Talented and other honor programs. 

One student from the report says, “We were told we weren’t ‘equipped’ to take certain classes. It comes from the top down … admin, teachers, and people who make decisions on campus.” 

The L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD) is the 2nd largest district in the country with over 1,000 schools and 574,996 students. As the Latino population grows within the district, Black students who make up only 7.6% of the student population, are feeling more and more marginalized.

The report was written by Speak UP United Parents, a grassroots organization of parents who seek to be a powerful voice of change for educational policies. Their mission is to “engage, educate and activate parents and community members to advocate for excellent, equitable public education at their children’s schools, in their communities, with elected representatives, and at the ballot box.” 

The report surveyed 500 parents within LAUSD and focus groups over one year. In this report, Black parents report:

  • 27% of their children’s behavior improved while learning at home.
  • 34% felt their children received more support from teachers during virtual learning versus in-person learning.  
  • Distance learning made disparities in education impossible to ignore.
  • They feel like schools are stacked against them.  
  • They feel abandoned. 
  • They do not feel welcome in their child’s school. 
  • The system is indifferent and, sometimes, even hostile toward them.
  • Their children felt less connected with the school than their Asian, White, and Hispanic counterparts. 
  • Only 44% of their children felt they were treated with respect by adults in the schools.
  • They had to advocate more for their children since they were in the minority and may not be as financially well off as other families. 

Additionally, the report highlights that gaps in test scores between Black and White students who are also minorities in LAUSD (10%) ranged from 28%-40% depending on the subject. For elementary and middle school students, those gaps in test scores were closing by less than 1% each year and, in high school, the gaps were slightly increasing.   

Speak UP’s report highlights disparities that are not only prevalent in LAUSD but in several other districts. If you talk with Black families in various parts of the country, I think you will find similar sentiments of their experiences with the school culture and environment. I have seen it discussed in various social media platforms and groups that I am a part of as well as in the lives of my close family and friends. 

Making A Difference 

Some students are blessed with a solid foundation. But what about that student who does not have that teacher or staff member who is willing to go to bat for them or encourage them in an environment that is not supportive? Or that student whose parents are too busy trying to make ends meet to advocate at their child’s school with the energy and proactiveness it takes to be fully engaged in a system that is clearly working against them? 

This is where the good news comes in: studies show that one caring, consistent adult can make a huge difference in the trajectory of a child’s life. That’s all it takes … one caring, consistent adult. What if we choose to be that adult for a child?

My friends and I ended our dinner conversation dreaming of what it would look like for all students, no matter color, creed, religion, orientation, or socioeconomic status to have access to the same quality education that seeks to develop each child in their wholeness and celebrates the differences that truly make us all unique. 

We all recognized the part we play in that dream through our respective families, communities, professions, and relationships. My hope is that you do as well. I pray that anyone working with Black students and families will keep in mind the findings of this report. Not all Black families have the same experiences in schools, however, it must be noted and acknowledged for all of us to do our part in making schools more equitable for all.

•  •  •

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