Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Monday September 29th, 2014, 6:34pm

New Report Calls Attention To Educational Barriers Impacting African-American Girls

A new national report is sounding the alarm on school-achievement obstacles that harm African-American girls.

Young African-American females are "faring worse than the national average for girls on almost every measure of academic achievement" due to "pervasive, systemic barriers in education rooted in racial and gender bias and stereotypes," according to the report by the National Women's Law Center (NWLC) and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.

"The futures of African-American girls are on the line," stressed NWLC's Co-President Marcia Greenberger. "It’s shameful that too many girls are falling between the cracks of an educational system that ignores their real needs. A strong education is essential for people in our country to compete in our economy and earn wages that can support themselves and their families. It's critical to turn this crisis around and put these girls on a path to success."

According to the "Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls: A Call to Action for Educational Equity" report, both African-American girls and boys run into a number of roadblocks to educational achievement, including under-resourced schools that lack "credentialed teachers, rigorous course offerings and extracurricular activities." Educational barriers, however, have a "distinct impact on African-American girls due to the intersection of gender and race stereotypes."

Specific challenges African-American female students face include "lack of access to college-and career-preparatory curricula in schools; limited access to athletics and other extracurricular activities; disproportionate and overly punitive disciplinary practices that exclude them from school for minor and subjective infractions, such as dress code violations and wearing natural hairstyles; discrimination against pregnant and parenting students; and pervasive sexual harassment and violence," the report reads.

Among other key findings, young African-American female students are more likely to earn poor academic marks and be held back a grade than all other groups of girls.

In 2010, 34 percent of African-American female students did not graduate from high school on time. By comparison, 18 percent of white girls and 22 percent of all female students did not graduate on time that year. 

Also, African-American girls encounter limited access to academic courses that lead them to higher education and well-paying jobs. Young African-American female students, for example, have a hard time accessing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, or STEM, courses. They also "report being discouraged by teachers from pursuing STEM classes," the study noted.

When it comes to participation in after-school programs and sports, African-American girls often run into challenges in terms of cost, transportation and other barriers.

Moreover, out-of-school suspensions and other "overly punitive disciplinary practices" for "relatively minor and subjective offenses" disproportionately impact female African-American students.

During the 2011 to 2012 academic year, 12 percent of all African-American female students from Pre-K to 12th grade were suspended from school, "despite research showing that African-American children do not misbehave more frequently than their peers," the report reads. During that school year, the suspension rate among African-American girls was six times higher than the rate for white girls. It was also higher than any other group of girls and also greater than white, Asian and Latino boys, according to the report.

Additionally, young African-American females experience higher rates of dating violence and sexual harassment and assault than white girls. 

"Among female students, African-American girls also face the highest rates of threatened violence or injury with a weapon on school property, and are disproportionately vulnerable to child sex trafficking victimization and to prosecution for their involvement in that underground economy," the report adds. "These experiences exacerbate poor outcomes for those girls who do not receive counseling assistance. And those girls who do seek help often encounter inappropriate and unsupportive responses from teachers and administrators."

The rate of unintended pregnancies is also three times higher for African-American teens than their white counterparts.

And "pregnant and parenting students are too often pushed out of school in violation of Title IX, and many struggle to stay in school due to the barriers they face to access child care, transportation, housing, health care, and financial assistance," the report noted.

Some of the consequences of race and gender disparities in academic achievement include limited job opportunities, lower lifetime earnings and increased risk of economic insecurity for African-American women, the report states.

In 2013, for example, 43 percent of African-American women without a high school diploma lived in poverty, according to the report. On the other hand, about 9 percent of African-American women with at least a bachelor's degree lived in poverty last year. 

The report makes a number of recommendations for policymakers, schools, community members, and philanthropic organizations to boost the educational and career outcomes for African-American girls and all students. They include:

  • Invest in early childhood education; reduce disparities in school resources; maintain transparency and accountability for the performance of all students.
  • Reduce reliance on overly punitive and exclusionary discipline practices in schools, such as suspensions and expulsions for minor offenses, and promote the use of alternative discipline practices, such as restorative justice, that encourage positive behavior and address trauma.
  • Increase transparency in and accuracy of schools’ annually reported discipline data. 
  • Increase access to and promote African-American girls’ participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) courses.
  • Support pregnant students and those who are parents.
  • Reduce gender- and race-based bullying, harassment and violence, and train school staff to recognize and address signs of trauma in students.
  • Increase access to athletics and other after-school activities and programs.
  • Target philanthropic funding to provide social services and support systems that address the needs of African-American girls, especially the most vulnerable — those who are low-income, in the child welfare system, victims of child sex trafficking, struggling to complete school, or in the juvenile justice system.

"Our educational policies and practices must open the doors of opportunity for all — regardless of race or gender," said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. "Only then will we fulfill the promise of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark ruling that invalidated legal segregation in America 60 years ago. The report’s findings complement the important, ongoing work to improve educational outcomes for boys and men of color and provide additional information about the challenges facing African-American children in education."

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