Helping African-American girls succeed

By Carrie Jeremy

Starasia Mackline, a bright and outgoing 8th-grade student in my after-school program, often finds herself getting sidetracked. Like any normal middle-school child, she worries about having friends and hanging with the “cool kids.” One “friend” in particular doesn’t seem to care about her education and often distracts Star and keeps her from excelling in school. She’ll influence Star to cut class or just to roam around and do what she pleases.

A recent article in the New York Times puts the kinds of problems my female students, like Star, have to deal with into perspective. It reports that African-American girls have a harder time becoming successful. They face more complications in school than white girls, which knocks down their self-esteem and takes away their leadership skills.

My afterschool program in the Courtlandt and Melrose area in the Bronx is located in a neighborhood known for violent activities and drug-related crimes—which makes the students’ struggles worse. Many, mostly African American or Hispanic, want to become better products of their neighborhood. They dream of graduating from college and moving on to a career, but they lose hope and feel they won’t make it because their teachers don’t give them enough support. I’ve had students come up to me and say they won’t become anything in life because that’s what everyone tells them. It enrages me that teachers who work in low-income areas don’t push students to see their worth. Female students, in particular, aren’t shown ways in which they can be someone great, aside from depending on a man.

Many who come from broken homes or low-income families take on the responsibility of creating better lives for themselves. Faced with labels and complications society brands these young girls with, it’s hard to focus on moving up when stereotypes can set them back. Outright discrimination kills their hopes. Blacks girls are more likely to be suspended than white girls, are perceived as loud and ignorant, and face higher levels of sexual harassment. Teen pregnancy rates continue to be a problem for African-American and Hispanic teen girls, causing higher dropout rates and graduation delays. Many studies report higher rates of teen pregnancy for girls of color than for other whites. Lack of educational achievement affects the lifetime income of teen mothers; two-thirds of teen families are poor, and one in four will depend on welfare during the child’s first three years.

Darker-skinned girls bear the brunt of the issues. Researchers at Villanova University found that they are suspended more often than girls with a lighter skin tone. Unable to face how the world is looking at them, and with a lack of resources to help them become leaders, these girls either drop out of school or never move to college. A study conducted by the National Womens Law Center shows over 520,000 girls dropped out of the 2007 graduating class in high school–22 percent were white, 40 percent were Black, 37 percent were Hispanic and 50 percent were Native American.

Experts see a clear disconnect between what African-American girls want to achieve and what they are actually doing to turn their hopes and dreams into reality. A publication called Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls reports that 75 percent of African-American girls consider themselves as leaders, yet only 12 percent of twelfth-grade girls participated in activities such as student government. They lack access to programs that teach them about self-esteem and leadership skills. The NAACP also reported, girls of the African American or Hispanic races, attend schools that are under-resourced and have unequal access to science, technology, math, and engineering opportunities—careers paths that often lead to future success.

The government, focusing more on making sure our young Black and Latino boys become strong men, is losing a grip on what’s going on with the girls. Too often, society still tells our girls they can’t become CEOs or lawyers because they aren’t tough enough. They are nurturing and caring so they need to work in the fields of nursing, teaching, our caring for children. We as people, parents, teachers, and caregivers must teach girls that they can do whatever they want in life. We have to help them tackle science and math fields, learn how to grasp the concept of building a car or use their drawing skills to become an architect rather than a fashion designer.

It’s beyond upsetting to know our young girls, like Star in my program, have so many dreams but lack the motivation to pursue them because they are afraid to be different—or that discrimination and other societal problems block their way. Coming from a single-parent home, I was told I would never make it and would end up pregnant living off the government. Luckily I had great teachers who cared and pushed me no matter how many times I wanted to give up. And a strong mother who never backed down, even in the hardest times, helped me realize my worth.