Studying Black History Can Help You Address The Learning That COVID-19 Interrupted

We know all too well Black and Brown students in marginalized communities are now bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s effect on schools—with inadequate technology, lack of internet access, little to no basic training in typing and computer skills, not to mention canceled music, visual and performing arts, athletics, clubs and other enrichments that aren’t nice-to-haves, but life-saving for so many students.

Exponentially more of our underserved younger students won’t reach critical reading and math benchmarks. Exponentially more of our underserved older students will have been pushed out, their pathways to college further blocked, diminishing their motivations and dreams.

IF WE NEED A MODEL OF HOW TO COMBAT LEARNING LOSS AT SCALE, IN A WAY THAT RESPECTS THE CULTURE OF OUR STUDENTS AND SIMULTANEOUSLY BUILDS UP THE COMMUNITIES IN WHICH THEY LIVE, LOOK NO FURTHER THAN AMERICA’S RICH BLACK HISTORY.

If we need a model of how to combat learning loss at scale, in a way that respects the culture of our students and simultaneously builds up the communities in which they live, look no further than America’s rich Black history – including the idea that children don’t just learn within schoolhouses. Too often, their learning is actually short circuited inside of schools.

A key part of the answer to addressing our students’ needs can be found within an intergenerational education framework. I experienced it firsthand. My earliest education was at a pan-African elementary school, Nidhamu Sasa, which translates as “Discipline Now.” Nidhamu Sasa was modeled after the Freedom Schools and Liberation Schools of the 1960s and the historic independent schools of the 1800s—high expectations and lots of love.

More recently, I worked with fellow educator-activists at the Center for Black Educator Development to create the Freedom Schools Literacy Academy in Philadelphia, which we are now expanding to other cities. Our approach integrates proven best practices of the Children’s Defense Fund and the Philadelphia Freedom Schools with a culturally-responsive, affirming and sustaining early-literacy curriculum. 

At our summer academy, expert Black educators coach aspiring Black college teacher apprentices and work with high school pre-apprentices exploring careers in education. The effect for our underserved Black and brown elementary students is the personalized literacy boost they need, coupled with a deepening of their racial identity.

BLACK AND BROWN STUDENTS LEARN BEST WITHIN A CONTEXT OF CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING

Our Freedom Schools Literacy Academy is based on the idea Black and brown students learn best within a context of cultural understanding, where educators don’t under-expect them to achieve while over-disciplining them, and where educators serve as mirrors, and not just windows, to their world. 

Freedom Schools Literacy Academy is no different from any other educational institution in that each assumes a cultural approach. It’s just that, unlike most, we proudly take a Black liberatory pedagogical approach. We believe this approach is critical for Black students’ school success, as studies show students’ higher racial/ethnic pride correlates with higher achievement measured by grades and test scores.

We also know that when Black students have Black teachers, they do better in school. When they have one Black teacher by third grade, they are 13% more likely to enroll in college. With two Black teachers in the mix early on, that stat jumps to 32%. When Black boys from underserved communities have a Black teacher, they’re far more likely to experience on-time high school graduation. In fact, their dropout rates drop by almost 40%. 

Consistent with these findings, our Freedom Schools Literacy Academy scholars from this past summer made significant gains in vocabulary and reading comprehension. While their peers elsewhere were experiencing the typical summer slide in learning (a 20% loss on average of school-year gains in reading) worsened by the educational and social fallout of the pandemic, our young scholars beat the odds, making leaps in literacy and shoring up their academic confidence—all of which better positioned them for the tumultuous school year.

FORTIFYING THE STUDENT-TO-EDUCATOR-ACTIVIST PIPELINE IS WHAT WE SEEK, BECAUSE WE KNOW IT IS CRITICAL TO TEACHING BLACK CHILDREN SUPERBLY AS A TRULY REVOLUTIONARY ACT.

Moreover, our college students and high schoolers not only felt mentally stronger, psychologically healthier and emotionally nourished, all of them also reported an increased interest in teaching Black children. Fortifying the student-to-educator-activist pipeline is what we seek, because we know it is critical to teaching Black children superbly as a truly revolutionary act.

Once those stimulus dollars start flowing, I urge school leaders to mine the cultural pedagogies of the Black community as well as those of Latino and Indigenous communities for further models of intergenerational educational enterprises that can be integrated into public schooling. We can’t expect to create a more diverse pipeline of educators if we aren’t cultivating and building a strong corps of diverse educators for children at every grade throughout their schooling. 

So let’s start now. We know the Biden administration has made a huge commitment to making up our country’s educational needs due to the pandemic. But nothing will improve significantly for our students and educators without a holistic, intergenerational approach. 

Black history month may have ended, but let’s commit to learning from Black history and the community-based solutions used by our ancestors and elders year round.

This blog was originally published on Education Post’s website.

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About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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