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A Call to Action to Support African American Girls

The headlines are sometimes shocking: A 7 year old African American girl sent home from her charter school and told by school officials that her hairstyle was not “presentable” and violated the dress code, which termed “dreadlocks” and “afros” to be “faddish” and “unacceptable.” A 16-year-old African American female student in Richmond, CA, brutally raped and assaulted in the campus courtyard during her school’s homecoming dance. An African American student parent, who took a full load of Advanced Placement courses her senior year and finished at the top of her class, forced to share her “valedictorian” title because she was deemed “a big mess” by the principal. These are the types of stories that make my heart hurt — for those girls and for their families, but also for the many girls whose stories are never told. And these are the types of stories that drove the National Women’s Law Center to partner with the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund on a report that fills an important gap in existing data on educational opportunity for African American girls.

Today we released Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls: A Call to Action for Educational Equity. Unlocking Opportunity shines a light on the prevalence of race and gender stereotypes and other barriers that adversely impact the educational experiences of African American girls. And it highlights critical data about the education and economic outcomes that result.

We wrote this report to examine the many hurdles faced by African American girls and boys — such as the under-resourcing of schools — and to emphasize those that have a distinct impact on African American girls due to the intersection of gender and race stereotypes, such as disproportionate and overly harsh disciplinary practices that exclude them from school for minor and subjective infractions such as dress code violations (yes, some schools really make students miss out on learning time for subjective dress code and hair “infractions”); pervasive sexual harassment and violence; discrimination against pregnant and parenting students; and limited access to athletics and other extracurricular activities.

We wrote this report to bring to light the devastating impact that these barriers have on the educational success of African American girls. Our analysis reveals that, on a wide range of measures of academic achievement — including graduation rates, grade retention, proficiency in core courses, and access to and completion of post-secondary education — African American women and girls fare worse than other girls. In 2010, over 1/3 of African American female students failed to graduate high school on time, compared to 18 percent of white female students and 22 percent of all female students. They were “held back” a grade at a rate of 21 percent, a rate that is far higher than any other group of girls and more than twice the rate of white girls. Our review of standardized achievement test scores revealed that in 2013, almost two-thirds of African American 12th-grade girls scored “below Basic” in math and near 40 percent scored “below Basic” in reading. And although the percentage of African American women who complete high school and go on to enroll in post-secondary institutions has risen over the last two decades (from 48 to 69 percent), African American female students are less likely than other female students to enroll in a four-year program, are slightly overrepresented in two-year colleges, and have completion rates that are lower than those of other female students.

We wrote this report because all of these factors have serious economic consequences for African American women and their families. Just last week, the Census released its data on poverty and income — this is the data set that allows us to examine the wage gap. And from those data we learned that that the wage gap for African American women remained stagnant, with African American women typically making only 64 cents for every dollar made by white, Non-Hispanic men. And we also know that education makes a powerful difference. In 2013, 43 percent of African American women without a high school diploma were living in poverty, compared to nine percent of African American women who have at least a bachelor’s degree.

Finally, we wrote this report to issue a call to action. We are calling on policymakers, schools, community members, and philanthropic organizations to prioritize, identify and address the particular challenges faced by African American girls and improve their rates of high school graduation and completion of post-secondary education. As our report points out, African American women and girls have played a central role in the fight for civil rights and for educational equality more broadly. We ask stakeholders to join us by fighting for African American girls — because our entire nation has a stake in ensuring the academic and professional success of all children. We challenge stakeholders to work to, among other things:

  • Invest in early childhood education; reduce disparities in school resources; maintain transparency and accountability for the performance of all students;
  • Reduce reliance on overly harsh, exclusionary discipline practices in schools, such as suspensions and expulsions, and promote the use of alternatives that encourage positive behavior and address trauma; increase transparency in and accuracy of schools’ annually reported discipline data;
  • Increase access to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs;
  • 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; and
  • 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.