Black students and teachers matter

February 7, 2018

Jesse Hagopian is a Seattle teacher and activist, editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing, and author of the forthcoming Teaching for Black Lives. He helped organize last year's Black Lives Matter at School action in Seattle and is helping to coordinate this year's national week of action. In an article first published at The Progressive, he explains the aims of the week's events.

EDUCATORS IN America know all too well that the school-to-prison pipeline is not just a political catchphrase. Those who work with students of color know this pipeline is as real as any other.

"It extends across this country," says Seattle educator, attorney and organizer Nikkita Oliver.

This is why from February 5 to 9, Oliver and thousands of educators around the U.S. will wear Black Lives Matter shirts to school and teach lessons about structural racism, intersectional Black identities, Black history, and anti-racist movements for a nationally organized week of action: Black Lives Matter at School.

"The Black Lives Matter at School movement is about dismantling the school-to-prison-pipeline," says Oliver, "and creating a school-to-justice-pipeline for our youth."

Educators in Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Boston, New York City, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere in between will join this national uprising to affirm the lives of Black students, teachers and families. The lessons that week will correspond to the thirteen guiding principles of Black Lives Matter:

Teachers and students stand up for Black lives in Seattle
Teachers and students stand up for Black lives in Seattle (Susan DuFresne | Twitter)

Monday: Restorative Justice, Empathy and Loving Engagement
Tuesday: Diversity and Globalism
Wednesday: Trans-Affirming, Queer Affirming and Collective Value
Thursday: Intergenerational, Black Families and Black Villages
Friday: Black Women and Unapologetically Black

The Black Lives Matter at School movement started in Seattle last year on October 19, when thousands of educators wore shirts to school that said, "Black Lives Matter: We Stand Together." Hundreds of families and students did, too. Many of the shirts also included the message "#SayHerName," a campaign to raise awareness about the often-unrecognized state violence and assault against women in our country.

This action attracted national news attention, helping it spread to Philadelphia. That city's Caucus of Working Educators' Racial Justice Committee expanded the action to last an entire week last year, with teaching points around the principles of Black Lives Matter. Educators in Rochester, N.Y., also held a Black Lives Matter at School day in 2017.

This year, a national Black Lives Matter at School coalition came together to coordinate a unified week of action with three demands:

1. End "zero tolerance" discipline and implement restorative justice
2. Hire more Black teachers
3. Mandate Black history and ethnic studies in K-12 curriculum

THE THREE national demands arose in response to political attacks on and systemic disadvantages experienced by Black students and educators around the nation.

A recent study shows that low-income Black boys who had at least one Black teacher in the third, fourth or fifth grade had a 39 percent lower probability of dropping out of high school than their peers who had no Black teachers during those years. And yet since 2002, the total number of African American teachers has decreased by 26,000, even as the overall teaching workforce has increased by 134,000.

In 2015, the Albert Shanker Institute reported a similarly stunning decline in the number of Black teachers around the country. For example, in Philadelphia, the number of Black teachers declined by 18.5 percent between 2001 and 2012. In Chicago, that same figure dropped by nearly 40 percent. And in New Orleans, there was a 62 percent drop. As Mother Jones reported:

In each of the nine cities the Albert Shanker Institute studied, a higher percentage of Black teachers were laid off or quit than Latino or white educators....Countless Black principals, coaches, cafeteria workers, nurses, and counselors have also been displaced--all in the name of raising achievement among Black students. While white Americans are slowly waking up to the issue of police harassment and violence in Black communities, many are unaware of the quiet but broad damage the loss of African American educators inflicts on the same communities.

As scholar Terrenda White has detailed, one of the factors in the whitening of the teaching force is corporate education reform programs like Teach for America. "What happened in New Orleans, for example, is a microcosm of this larger issue where you have a blunt policy that we know resulted in the displacement of teachers of color, followed by [Teach for America's] expansion in that region," White told another of The Progressive's Public School Shakedown fellows, Jennifer Berkshire, in 2016.

IN ADDITION to systemic pushout of Black teachers, there is a similar large-scale pushing out of Black students from schools. Black students are over three times more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled from school. Black girls, in particular, suffer the most disproportionate disciplinary measures: They are seven times more likely to be suspended than white girls, and not because they are even charged with misbehaving more often.

These statistics are why the Black Lives Matter at School movement is demanding an end to so-called zero tolerance discipline practices that are fueling school pushout, and a rapid implantation of restorative practices that help to build community so students can solve conflicts. As education outlet Rethinking Schools editorialized back in 2014:

There are a number of models of restorative practices, but they always start with building community. Then, when a problem arises, everyone involved is part of the process....shared values are agreed on. Then questions like these are asked: What is the harm caused and to whom? What are the needs and obligations that have arisen? How can everyone present contribute to addressing the needs, repairing the harm, and restoring relationships? Additional questions can probe the roots of the conflict and make broader connections: What social circumstances promoted the harm? What similarities can we see with other incidents? What structures need to change?

Beyond being pushed out of school, when Black students are in class they are too often subjected to a corporate curriculum that obscures the struggles and contributions by people of color.

The McGraw-Hill textbook company was caught replacing the word "slave" with "worker" and placing the section on the transatlantic slave trade within the chapter on immigration--as if Africans came here looking for a better life. A textbook titled The Connecticut Adventure was removed from a Connecticut school district after a decade of use when it was revealed that it was teaching fourth graders that slave owners "cared for and protected [slaves] like members of the family."

These kinds of distortions and whitewashing of curriculum are precisely why the Black Lives Matter at School movement is demanding mandatory Black studies and ethnic studies classes for kindergarteners on up to high school seniors.

When Black students are in class they are too often subjected to a corporate curriculum that obscures the struggles and contributions by people of color.

BLACK LIVES Matter at School has been endorsed by many luminaries in the struggle for social justice, including Opal Tometi (co-founder of Black Lives Matter), Jonathan Kozol, (author of Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America), and Michael Bennett (Pro Bowl defensive end for the Seattle Seahawks).

"I wholeheartedly support and endorse the National Black Lives Matter at School Week," Kozol tells me. "At a time when all too many weary semi-liberals are willing to knock down the statues of racist figures from the past, but not to change the racist systems that crush the souls and amputate the destinies of millions of Black children in the savagely unequal public schools of the United States, it's time to raise the stakes and bring the struggle back into the classrooms."

Join us in this national uprising for racial justice in education. Because when young people are valued, proud of themselves, and aware of their history, well, then they will be equipped to remove the structures of racism and oppression--from Confederate monuments to rhetorical but very real pipelines--and build a better world.

First published at The Progressive.

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