Caring for Black Girlhood in the Classroom

Two researchers examine the unique challenges Black girls face in schools and the powerful things Black women have done to uplift them.

Zoom image: Two young African American girl with googles pour blue liquid into beaker Two young African American girl with googles pour blue liquid into beaker.

Black girls are disciplined in schools at a higher rate than all other girls and most boys in every U.S. state, according to the National Women’s Law Center. And punitive regulations—often applied subjectively and steeped in cultural biases—can mandate suspension, expulsion or even arrest.

The result, says Terri N. Watson, a 2020-21 Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the University at Buffalo’s Center for Diversity Innovation, is that Black girls are overrepresented not just in school discipline data but also in the school-to-prison pipeline.

But there are things educational leaders can do to improve schooling for Black girls.

Doing ‘motherwork’

Despite the concerning statistics, the experiences of Black girls have received scant attention. And while much research focused on the schooling experiences of Black children looks at systemic racial biases, the care enacted by Black women school leaders is often overlooked.

In an article in the Journal of School Leadership, Watson and Gwendolyn Baxley, assistant professor in the UB Graduate School of Education, examine how past examples of Black women in their roles as mothers, activists and school leaders can help to transform current practices.

Watson and Baxley draw lessons from the Oakland Community School, a school created in the 1960s by the Black Panther Party as an alternative for Black children whose needs were not being met by their school district.

Led by Black women, the school took steps such as feeding students three meals a day and designing a curriculum that celebrated Black life. By forgoing security guards and detention, the school also avoided practices that criminalized Black children.

The authors assert that such so-called “motherwork” can serve as a form of culturally responsive school leadership that breaks down oppressive structures within schools and builds new ones that boost the cultural awareness—and self-esteem—of Black youth.

A turn toward care

Watson and Baxley identify several ways that today’s educational leaders can better serve Black students, especially girls.

First, they say school discipline policies should implement restorative justice practices that focus on repairing relationships rather than punishing children. Second, curricula should explore the historic and current lived experiences of Black youth.

“Mainstream curriculum rarely reflects the identities of Black children, nor does it authentically expose the true histories and lived experiences of Black people in the U.S. and across the African diaspora,” says Baxley.

A third strategy involves building identity and sense of self among students. “Educational leaders must affirm Black children and see them not only for who they are,” says Baxley, “but for who they can and will be.”