Repairing Black Girls' Relationship with School
Research confirms that schools have protective effects on students. Although the factors that contribute to school bonds and attachment are well-documented, many schools, especially schools serving predominantly Black youth and other youth of color, struggle to cultivate environments that support students’ growth and development. For students of color, schools are sites where their physical, psychological, and emotional safety and wellbeing are under constant assault. This is particularly true for Black students, especially Black girls. Consequently, Black girls—specifically those who are directly impacted by the juvenile legal system and foster care—are at heightened risk of disengaging from and being pushed out of school.
The EMERGE (Educating, Mentoring, Empowering, and Reaffirming our Girls for Excellence) Reentry Program is a new promising model and educational approach that is designed to dismantle existing pathways to school disengagement and confinement and instead build pathways to college and careers for Black girls and other girls of color who have been involved in the juvenile-legal or foster care systems. EMERGE operates from the belief that preparing Black girls who have been involved in the juvenile-legal or foster care systems for educational and employment success requires also addressing their mental and emotional wellbeing. EMERGE’s program model integrates educational assistance and accelerated credit accrual with intensive mental wellness and crisis intervention services to create a learning environment organized around its students’ specialized and complex needs. These elements work together to repair students’ connections with learning and academic achievement.
NBWJI recently completed a process evaluation to describe and understand EMERGE’s services, activities, policies, and procedures, as well as factors that affected its implementation and evolution during its pilot phase.
EMERGE successfully implemented strategies to repair Black girls’ bonds with school and restore a commitment to their educational success:
Assessed for trauma exposure: Using the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) questionnaire, EMERGE staff assessed students’ trauma exposure to better understand students’ needs and experiences and to create a school environment that supports students’ wellness and educational goals.
Instituted a community-centered staffing model: EMERGE hired staff who were from the same communities as EMERGE students and collaborated with organizations with a deep understanding of the lived experiences of the youth EMERGE serves, which was vital to students’ sense of safety and comfort in the program.
Fostered a culturally affirming learning environment: Educators presented culturally affirming lessons and displayed images and quotes from Black women leaders throughout history to inspire students and help them cultivate a sense of self-determination and leadership and visualize new possibilities and opportunities. National Black Women’s Justice Institute | Repairing Black Girls’ Relationship with School 4
Co-created school policies and procedures with students: EMERGE implemented restorative practices to promote a sense of community and collective responsibility, and the program engaged students in the development of policies and procedures to ensure they were youth-centered and regenerative instead of punitive.
EMERGE implemented promising strategies to build pathways to college and employment for system-impacted Black girls that were hampered by external forces:
Student-centered educational plans: EMERGE implemented an individualized course of study through the Alameda County Office of Education (ACOE) that allowed students to accrue missing course credits and graduate at their own pace, often faster than possible in a traditional public school. However, there was some concern that the individualized course of study prescribed by the ACOE did not engender an enthusiasm for learning or an interest to pursue higher education.
Creating EMERGE-specific lessons: To deepen students’ curiosity and interest in learning, EMERGE instructors created lessons to supplement the individualized education plans for each student. Despite interest, student attendance was sporadic, given that completion of supplemental lessons was not required for graduation.
Partnering with a local community college: At the start, EMERGE established a relationship with Laney College to help facilitate student matriculation into the college’s associate degree and certificate programs. Few EMERGE students matriculated at Laney College, likely because the partnership ceased after the first year of implementation due to factors outside EMERGE’s control.
Although, EMERGE looks and operates differently today than originally planned, it has successfully graduated girls with high school diplomas every year since its launch. Due largely to external factors, program staffing is different, as well as the make-up of its program partners. Despite the challenges EMERGE faced during its pilot phase, the cornerstone of the approach remained steadfast and helped to repair system-impacted Black girls’ commitment to learning and their education goals.
By creating an environment where students knew the staff were wholly invested in their wellbeing and would accept them no matter the circumstance or behavior they exhibited, EMERGE helped revitalize students’ commitment to their education and confidence in themselves and what they could achieve. Because of this approach, EMERGE should be viewed not just as a school, but also as a critical support system for Black girls and other girls of color who have been impacted by the juvenile-legal or foster care systems. The EMERGE program offers insightful guidance and promising strategies for how to rebuild and repair students’ bonds and attachment to school, especially for Black girls and other girls of color who are directly impacted by the juvenile-legal or foster care systems.