Nzingha Dugas was, she says, the kind of girl who always loved school. For children, the result of growing up in classrooms which are safe, fun and nurturing can be seen in later success: a college education, and a distinguished career. But this experience, Dugas knows, is not the norm for the young girls of color she is working to help in Oakland.
“Learning, engagement and fun,” Dugas said, “That’s what I want.” And, according to a new report commissioned by the Oakland Unified School District, that’s what girls in Oakland schools want, too. The district has responded by initiating a major push to address the concerns of girls and young women of color, beginning with Dugas’ appointment as director of a new initiative, the African American Girls and Young Women Achievement Program.
In 2015, the OUSD partnered with girls’ advocacy umbrella organization Alliance for Girls to commission a report, titled “Valuing Girls Voices: The Lived Experience of Girls of Color in OUSD.” Released in late September, the study explored the concerns of girls in the district. Its findings were based on data analysis of girls’ academic success, focus groups with girls of color, and interviews with adults involved in promoting local services to girls.
The report confirmed what Chris Chatmon, the district’s Deputy Chief of Equity, had suspected. “It made it clear to us at the district that our girls really are having to navigate a lot of things,” he said. Of particular concern: a finding in the report that there was “a clear sense that African American girls are having uniquely negative experiences at OUSD schools.”
“One of the biggest issues that we’re seeing is girls not feeling safe in the school system,” Dugas said, “whether they’re feeling sexually harassed, or not supported.”
The effect of this experience is clear in figures released by the report, and follows a national trend. African American girls are suspended at a higher rate than any other ethnicity nationwide. In Oakland, while only one out of three girls in the district is African American, they represent two out of every three girls who are suspended, according to school district figures released in 2016.
Additionally, the district’s African American girls are more likely than boys to be chronically absent from class, and experience the lowest rate of graduation among their female peers. School district figures for the 2015-16 school year show African American girls’ graduation rate at 61 percent, while Latina girls achieve 65 percent, Asian girls 77 percent, and white girls 81 percent.
Less than a third of African American girls in the district are classed as being proficient at reading by the time they are in third grade, compared to 77 percent of white girls. And, according to the same study, African American girls are the least likely to report caring relationships with adults at their schools.
On receiving the report, Chatmon said those at the district realized: “You know what? We need to do something different.” He began to look for someone to head a new program which would mirror the African American Male Achievement (AAMA) program, an initiative the district has run for boys since 2010.
That program has garnered national acclaim, and is now acknowledged by the Obama administration as a best practice model for increasing boys’ success in public schools. The OUSD was the first district in the nation to create a department focusing specifically on addressing the needs of young African American men. From 2010 to 2016, the program has been credited with reducing suspension rates for African American male students by 47 percent district-wide, and increasing graduation rates from 40 percent to 59 percent among African American male students.
Chatmon was the founding director of the male achievement initiative, and has spoken at conferences and professional development seminars on the success of the program. This Monday, October 17, he will be showcasing the initiative at the White House. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he said of the girls’ program, adding that he hopes it will enjoy the same level of success in coming years.
This is not the first time the district has considered disparities in achievement for girls, or the particular issues faced by young African American women. In 2014, Sultanah Corbett began the African American Female Achievement Initiative; an after-school program at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary, where she teaches grades K-5. Corbett holds a master’s degree in equity and social justice in education, and her program curriculum includes covering technology, science, and female leaders in history.
Enthusiasm for her program is high, Corbett said. “We didn’t turn away anyone,” she said, “They were following their friends, they wanted to be a part of it. So we were like, ‘Come on in.’” The program received seed money from the district, and has reached roughly 85 girls so far. Corbett said she helped the district research and plan for a more ambitious, district-wide program in the lead-up to the announcement of the new initiative.
Those involved in setting up the new initiative recognize that the needs of the district’s female students differ from those of the young men in the sibling program. In focus groups, girls described experiences of sexism and disparate treatment in school by teachers and staff members, as well as the effect that gossip, anxiety over body image, and gender-specific safety concerns have on them.
Citing offhand sexism in the classroom, one interviewee said, “No one ever tells boys, ‘Be careful. You might be a teen dad one day!’ It’s always left to the girls.”
Another said she felt “teachers are more scared of black girls,” while one girl said African American girls had a reputation for “being loud, because no one wants to listen to us.”
Julayne Virgil is CEO of Girls Inc in Alameda County, a non-profit offering academic enrichment programs for girls. She agreed that girls’ concerns are often not being heard. “I think a program like this can definitely make a difference,” she said. “It can help to elevate issues and bring them to the forefront.”
Virgil said other concerns for school-age girls of color include a heightened risk of sexual assault and exploitation, and an increased expectation to do more caretaking at home, which decreases the time girls have for studying, self-initiated learning and exploring extracurricular activities. “The issues are real and they’re important,” Virgil said. “It’s a relief to know that there’s an office and initiative that will be taking a regular look at these issues.”
Dugas hears her loud and clear. The new director is about to embark on a listening tour of the district to gather additional testimony from students, parents, educators and advocates, and boost partnerships with organizations that can provide girl-specific opportunities in Oakland schools. “We’ve already got these jewels here,” Dugas said. “I want to make sure the programming lines up with what our community’s saying that they need.”
The initial report, however, has already given her some ideas. Girls voiced their desire for more safe, quiet spaces to go during the school day, more sex education, more opportunities for girls and boys to make respectful relationships, and an expansion of girls’ sports and other after-school enrichment activities.
Dugas also highlighted the need for additional professional development training for both teachers and the girls themselves. In order to foster better relationships between students and educators, the report emphasized the need to implement policies that address structural racism and unconscious bias in the classroom. Dugas also envisions additional programs for girls which will provide on-the-ground learning with women in professional leadership roles. “I’ve got judges already knocking on the door to say ‘I’m ready,’” to take part, she said.
Dugas hopes to have completed her tour by January, and intends to begin implementing new policies soon after. “I know it’s a process, it’s going to take some time, but I’m up for the challenge,” she said. “I’m completely and totally excited about it.”
Chatmon, too, is enthusiastic about the program’s potential. He hopes it will enjoy the same level of success as its sibling program. In the future, he intends for both program to interact, bringing students together to “have conversations around relationships, integrity, values, brotherhood and sisterhood, what does it mean to support each other,” he said.
And Chatmon already has an eye on what’s next. Three new programs are in the pipeline, beginning with one geared towards the district’s Latino/Latina population, and one focused on its Asian Pacific Islander students. Chatmon intends to begin work on these in February, and have new directors in place for both programs before the end of the school year.
Chatmon has also begun proposals for a fifth program focused on the district’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans youth, for whom he says the need for a targeted initiative is equally great. The first steps towards implementing that program, he hopes, will begin this time next year.
For now, Dugas sums up the goal of her new program in one simple sentence: “I want girls to be able to wake up and want to go to school.”
For some, that may not seem an ambitious goal. But for many girls in Oakland, it may seem impossible right now. “I’ve seen when the light goes on in a little girl,” said Dugas. “I want to flick on those lights.”
Correction: On October 18, 2016, an update was made to this story to amend which grades are taught by Sultanah Corbett.