Using a Culturally Responsive Strength-Based Model to Support the School Readiness and Success of Young African American Boys

The Crisis

Educational disparities begin as soon as students step into our schools. Research by Walter Gilliam at Yale University in 2005 documented the racial disparities in expulsions and suspensions in pre-K settings that primarily impacted Black preschoolers, particularly African American boys. Recent data from a U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights report demonstrated that Black preschoolers are 3.6 times as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as White preschoolers, indicating that this is an ever-present crisis.  Though the documentation of racial bias impacting children in preschool settings is fairly recent, those affected by these biases have been aware of the injustice and inequity for generations.

Efforts to address this crisis have primarily focused on deficit approaches, emphasizing “fixing” the “challenging behaviors” of children. This approach has resulted in learning environments that misinterpret boys’ behaviors and motivations, foster low expectations for their academic achievement, and stigmatize and stereotype them, creating barriers in teacher, child, school, and home relationships.

The Center on Culture, Race and Equity (CCRE) takes a different approach, understanding that that the values, beliefs, motivations, and practices of adults working with African American boys and their families are critical factors in their school success.  Recent research also supports the belief that children’s development and learning benefit from culturally responsive, strength-based teaching, high expectations for children’s school success, and family and community engagement.


Collaboration to Address Educational Disparities Facing Young African American Boys

On the basis of this perspective, CCRE collaborated with the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) in January 2015. The result of the collaboration was the launch of a pilot to address the disparities of African American boys in DC elementary schools, focusing on preschool classrooms. The CCRE culturally responsive strength-based model was implemented in three elementary schools in Wards 7 and 8.

The pilot consisted of training and professional development for preschool teachers, school leaders, as well as specialists, custodians, and food preparation staff.  The focus of the training was on how to change the practices, strategies, and systems of the school to better serve and support the social and emotional development and academic success of young African American boys.  Focus groups were conducted to capture parent/guardian experiences and perspectives on current school climate, support parents’ role as experts on their boys, and share advocacy strategies.

The CCRE professional development supported the personal, professional, and institutional change of school leaders, teachers, other staff, and parents throughout the course of a school year. The trainings focused on:

  • Increasing staff’s knowledge and awareness of the theories and research on African American boys in school;
  • Changing negative, deficit-based attitudes and beliefs about the boys to strength-based;
  • Increasing staff motivation to change these mindsets;
  • Building staff skills and practices in working with children and families, particularly of those African American boys who they originally perceived as the more difficult to teach.

Evaluation data revealed significant gains in participants’ awareness and understanding across multiple domains related to African American boys’ development including: the effects of racial and cultural bias and stereotypes as it relates to boys’ development and learning, the value of children and families’ culture in supporting boys’ social emotional needs, and the need for adults to be advocates and agents for change in their schools, homes, and communities.

While reflecting on his participation in the pilot project, a school principal noted, “The greatest outcome for our leadership team was the paradigm shift from a deficit to a strength-based mindset. It has helped us to realize that we have wrapped all our interventions in addressing behavioral concerns around deficits—seeking to ‘fix’ students by addressing their shortcomings, learning gaps, and behaviors.”


Expanding Our Work With DCPS

As a result of of the 2015 pilot results, CCRE and DCPS have expanded our partnership to engage  additional elementary schools in the 2017-2018 school year. CCRE’s culturally responsive, strength-based model will be the organizing framework for the professional development training. The goals of the project are as follows:

  • Improve the quality of the school experience for the boys;
  • Build a stronger relationship between staff and the boys’ families;
  • Strengthen the school readiness and success of African American boys as they transition to kindergarten;
  • Support the relationship between the boys and their families;
  • Increase the support of parents for their children’s education.

Documenting and Disseminating the CCRE Method

Our culturally responsive, strengths-based model has created visible and measurable outcomes for practitioners, families, and children. In our continued work with DCPS, we will create a comprehensive plan to document and learn from the impact we are able to make on the personal, professional, and institutional levels. The goal of this effort is to both document what is effective for replication by others, and to make course corrections as needed to ensure fidelity to the model and its implementation.

Results of this work will position CCRE and DCPS to explore how the program impacts particular schools (systems, teachers, other staff, and parents), what challenges exist, and what the implications are for expanding the program to additional schools.

Furthermore, we see an opportunity to add a critical voice to the field by focusing on the impact of the CCRE model that is grounded in Bank Street’s deep understanding of child and adult development. We believe that if we can effectively integrate deep knowledge of children and classrooms with a thorough understanding of systems change in our ongoing work, we will be able to generate strategies for taking effective culturally responsive practices from one classroom to whole school districts. By documenting the work we do at all levels of the system – with individual teachers, leaders, and whole communities – we will begin to build resources and materials to contribute to a national conversation for tackling issues of culture, race, and equity. We invite you to join us in this conversation by continuing to read, share, and comment on our blog posts!

In Collaboration,

Lisa Gordon




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