Improving education for low-performing groups of students shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. DC Public Schools (DCPS) have drawn attention (some of it negative) for their Empowering Males of Color initiative, which includes a new all-boys high school. But girls of color need specialized supports, too, in DCPS and nationwide. The graduation rate for black girls in DCPS is 20 percentage points lower than that of white students.
What should a high-quality support system for girls of color look like? DCPS shouldn’t open an all-girls high school across the street from the boys’ school and call it a day. Here are some focus areas for DCPS and other school systems to consider:
- Support girls of color in STEM and CTE. Black girls are less likely to take AP courses in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects, and less likely than white men or white women to graduate college with a degree in a STEM field. In recent NAEP Technology and Engineering Literacy results, girls beating boys by three points made headlines, but black and Hispanic girls still lagged behind white boys and girls by 20-30 points. Schools should encourage girls to take advanced courses in STEM subjects and enroll in career and technical education (CTE) programs linked to high-earning careers in traditionally male-dominated fields.
- Confront racial and gender bias in school discipline. Racial gaps in school discipline impact all students of color, but boys and girls experience it differently. In DC schools (including charter schools) in 2011-12, 13% of black girls received out-of-school suspensions vs. 1% of white girls and 2% of white boys. While good data on discipline causes are scarce, researchers suggest that girls of color are more likely to be punished harshly for minor behavioral issues, such as dress code violations. More data on discipline by race and gender are needed, as are better school policies and resources to show educators how to respond to behavioral challenges fairly.
- Enhance pregnancy prevention and support for teen parents. Teen pregnancy and parenting are cited as key factors among 38% of black girls and 36% of Hispanic girls who leave school. In DC, efforts to reduce teen pregnancy have been very successful, and the number of teen births fell by 20% from 2009 to 2012. DC is already doing more than many jurisdictions to prevent pregnancy and keep teen parents in schools: comprehensive sex education is the norm, condoms are available in all high schools from the school nurse and student volunteers, educational programs aimed at supporting teen parents are available in DCPS high schools, and the DC Department of Human Services sponsors pregnancy prevention education in afterschool programs.
- Acknowledge other family responsibilities. Girls are more likely than boys to be responsible for caring for younger siblings or other family members. This kind of care is not as well-documented as teen pregnancy, but it can be just as stressful. DC has the most expensive childcare in the country, and struggling working parents have to rely more on informal care, like teen sisters. Policymakers should expand the availability of high-quality affordable child care, and school leaders should allow for more flexible attendance/scheduling policies, transportation assistance, and other educational supports for girls who need to get their siblings to school or help siblings with homework.
- Target bullying and sexual harassment that disproportionately affects girls. Girls cannot learn successfully if they feel unsafe. A national survey by AAUW found that 56% of girls in grades 7-12 experienced some kind of sexual harassment in the 2010-11 school year. And girls from low-income families were more likely to stay home from school in response to harassment. Girls also experience bullying in ways that may be less visible: girls are more likely to be the victims of cyber-bullying and relational bullying (where someone is ostracized or gossiped about, rather than being directly confronted). School policies on bullying and sexual harassment should address these different experiences, and educators should be trained to recognize signs of distress and trauma in girls.
- Break out the data. One of the most basic things all states can do is publish easily accessible “cross-tabs” of key achievement metrics, so communities can see how boys and girls are performing across racial/ethnic and socioeconomic lines. Separate data on gender, socioeconomic status, and race/ethnicity tend to be more accessible, but going deeper, to look at black students by gender or gender groups broken out by socioeconomic status, is not common or consistent even though state data systems would support it.
Schools should intervene to help students who are struggling most, and in most school systems, that means supporting boys of color; initiatives like Empowering Males of Color could be a good start. But girls of color need unique supports, too. If schools go the route of gender-differentiated strategies to close racial achievement gaps, they should articulate plans for both boys and girls. This is not a meaningless gesture to give the appearance of fairness, it’s about recognizing that intersections of race and gender and lots of other factors can affect students in different ways and demanding strategies that are responsive to students’ experiences. This can have real positive effects on student learning — just don’t leave girls out of the picture.