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Guilford County Seeks Equity for African-American Males

From guest blogger Alyssa Morones

In his statement on the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman verdict, President Obama called upon the nation to do more for the country's African-American male youth. Guilford County Schools in Greensboro, N.C., may be ahead of the curve, having implemented its African-American Male Initiative during the 2012-13 school year.

The initiative, aimed at reducing suspensions and improving literacy among the schools' black male students, proved effective in the first pilot schools—three schools implemented disciplinary changes and six worked on improving early literacy rates.

During the 2011-12 school year, African-American male students in the 73,000-student Guilford County school system (40 percent of whom are African American) lost 17,177 instructional days to suspension. In the discipline initiative pilot schools, that number decreased by 49 percent, while it decreased by only 6.7 percent across the school system.

While children in the pilot schools that focused on the literacy prong of the initiative made progress, the schools were not yet able to get them to grade level.

Guilford schools began developing the initiative after examining the continued disparate outcomes between African-American males and their white counterparts. African-American males in Guilford were 3.4 times more likely to be suspended than their white male counterparts or to be given longer suspensions for the same offense.

Inequity also pervaded literacy rates. Black males were shown to make less progress in literacy over the course of a year, even when they entered the same classroom with another student at the same reading level.

"We saw that this was an issue prevalent across the country, not just in North Carolina or in Guilford," said Brenda Elliot, the executive director of students services in Guilford County schools, in an interview with Education Week. "We decided to face the issue head on and do everything we can to address it and to fix it."

Progress hasn't been easy. To amend these inequities, the African-American Male Initiative required faculty to deepen their cultural literacy and examine their inherent biases in order to adequately address the inequities in education present within their schools. Guilford County invested in professional development and developing best practices for faculty in the pilot schools.

Bob Christina is the principal of High Point Central High School, where the disciplinary prong of the initiative was implemented this past year. There, he and his staff focused on handling more disciplinary issues within the classroom and through mediation. The initiative required a cultural shift within his school—one where faculty and students spoke a common language.

"Keeping kids in school translates into academic achievement," he said.

It was a process that required teachers to alter their relationship to discipline and their students. Teachers were asked to self-examine the inherent biases they were bringing into the classroom and their relationship to their students.

"Changing your style and your personality is very, very difficult," said Christina. "Biases are hard to shed."

"It's an investment in how to be a good person in society," he said. "And it's one that's critical to changing students' behavior."

While there have been some claims from parents that the initiative has led to a lack of appropriate punishments for students, Beth Folger, the chief academic officer for Guilford County schools, said that students are never left in classrooms if they pose a safety threat. Rather, for violations that are not serious, schools are focused on helping students learn how to change instead of sending them away.

"We can decrease suspensions and still have safe schools," she said.

As the Initiative enters its second year, Folger said that the schools will continue to improve cultural competence and address unconscious biases. There are not yet plans for expanding the initiative to other schools, but they do hope to provide more professional development for staff and institute a position that would be responsible for primary oversight over the initiative.

"All of our teachers [in the pilot schools] went through a three-day symposium on cultural competence, but three days doesn't move teachers' beliefs and behaviors to where they need to be," said Folger.

"This really is a national problem," she said. "We hope to make a difference that will inform the field of education in general."

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