The Power of Education as a Bridge to Opportunities for Kinship Youth
The recent killing of George Floyd has reawakened America’s fight for racial justice. Demonstrators are not only protesting against the injustices African-Americans have long faced in the criminal justice system, but also the systemic racism embedded in all facets of American life—including education. Institutions are speaking out; teachers are initiating conversations in the classroom about race and racism, as well as affirming their black students; and students are joining protests to make their young voices heard.
Additionally, the onset of COVID-19 has shed light on the issue of systemic inequality in the education system—and the achievement gap it yields—which impacts many students each day. Shelter-in-place orders have forced schools and educators to create innovative ways to ensure students are still able to learn, progress and even graduate, but while many students have the opportunity to continue their educational progress with support from parents and resources afforded by their schools, not all students experience the same. For example, students in affluent districts have greater access to the technology and resources necessary to learn virtually until schools reopen, while children from communities of color and/or low-income neighborhoods struggle to access the same. These disparities demonstrate how educational outcomes for minority children are a function of their unequal access to key resources.
It is essential that children have a solid educational foundation in their early learning stages. Early childhood education and literacy is a critical component in any child’s academic development and factors into their future career options and economic stability, as well as health and social opportunities. A long-term study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF) found that students not proficient in reading by the end of third grade were four times more likely to drop out of high school than proficient readers and are likely to experience consequences that stretch into adulthood. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that for black, Hispanic and American Indian children, more than 80 percent in each group are not proficient readers. While this issue is nationwide amongst children of all ethnicities, research suggests that a number of factors, including income level, can have adverse effects on children of color at higher rates than white children.
“Education can be a starting point—especially for kids in kindergarten—to learn social skills, how to share, how to talk to a friend, managing their emotions,” explains Ciarra Lewis, kindergarten teacher at Gulph Elementary School in King of Prussia, PA. “They have a chance at school to learn how to be a well-rounded individual, because the goal of education is always to make productive citizens in the community to lead the next generation. As teachers, we try and make sure that every child has left kindergarten learning those skills they need to know for the rest of their years. When we start with kindergarten, we want to make sure they have a good experience and that they love school, because they’re going to be in school for a long time.”
For children in care, a positive educational experience from pre-K through grade 12 can be a powerful source of opportunity to overcome the uncertainties associated with impermanence and instability. ASCI’s education liaison and former educator and administrator Christine White-Taylor, PhD, explains, “Education to students in foster care is like having a golden ticket,” she says. “The more students become involved in learning, the stronger their independence will be. There will be broader horizons, empowered goals and [the] drive to reach them. The possibility of an increase in their earning power will materialize, not to mention an opportunity to change their trajectory. Experiencing education [and] collecting knowledge is a foundation for wise moves and adhering to good counsel.”
It can be difficult for children in care to maintain a consistent path of learning, but this issue poses an even greater threat to black foster children’s educational experiences, as systemic racism makes them susceptible to consequences of the unrealistic impositions of white middle class family values and expectations of black children and families. This is evident in the ways black students are disciplined in school. Research has shown that black children are suspended and expelled at three times the rate of white students. These disparities are affecting children as early as preschool and may indicate how black children are perceived in comparison to their white classmates.
“A lot of this systemic racism really starts in the education system with the school-to-prison pipeline,” Lewis explains. “Our young black males are disproportionately referred to special-education services and are disproportionately diagnosed with ADHD, ADD and anger management problems or Oppositional Defiance Disorder a lot more than their white counterparts. This comes from a lack of understanding of black culture or what the family makeup is. It has nothing to do with Mom not showing up to a parent-teacher conference because she doesn’t care, but it’s because she’s working two jobs and doesn’t have a car to drive there and then she needs someone to watch the children. So, there are all these other barriers that start before diagnosing children.”
Dismantling systemic racism in education requires advocacy for students on all levels. We must begin by recognizing inherent biases in order to break down the longstanding barriers that continue to keep children of color and children in low-income communities disadvantaged from receiving the benefits of quality education.
Lewis believes this process begins when educators address their biases. “And everyone else in the education system, whether they’re psychologists or principals who serve on the special-education team, to realize that some of these students—boys most of the time—don’t actually need special-education services, but [instead] an intervention to keep them on the right track.”
Furthermore, educators have the power to advocate for their students to ensure they have equal access to more than just adequate educational opportunities.
Kharma Lowe, 12th-grade special-education teacher at Braddock Hills Propel High School in Pittsburgh, acts as a “Resource Teacher” for her students. She offers that one way to ensure all students have an equal chance to thrive inside and outside the classroom is allowing them the opportunity to voice their needs while teaching them ways to advocate from themselves.
“We have an after-school student council,” Lowe says. “We meet with the students and that’s their chance to voice their opinions. We’ve had them on the Saturday Light Brigade Radio Show with the Children’s Museum. We also had a town hall with PA Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, where they were able to ask questions about how their education is going to be impacted by COVID-19. They’ve been voicing how they’ve been feeling. A lot of it is the youth voice, and the adults [are] able to facilitate and mold it. It’s just getting them prepared and understanding a little bit about government, and more so, how can we get your questions and concerns out there so we can start to get [our leaders] thinking, ‘What’s on the minds of our youth?’”
The promise of education is one that gives all youth the opportunity to thrive. This promise informs, empowers and works to bridge the gap over the barriers that may prevent youth from reaching their fullest potentials in life. Dr. Taylor explains, “Today especially, education is extremely important. Knowledge today is more powerful than ever, because once you have it in your brain, learn a language, a skill, read a good book, choose something different on a restaurant menu, etc., it’s yours forever. You have the ability to discover many things that you wouldn’t be able to experience without having had an educational experience.”
Thus, dismantling racism in our education system is critical to the future success of our country. If we cannot ensure all youth are able to learn without barriers, we are hindering the endless opportunities embedded in the American Dream we all hope to experience—a dream that begins with education.