Black Educators Closing Equity Gaps for African American Students and Teachers

by Kathya Alexander

The academic achievement gap between white and BIPOC students has been well documented. Black and Hispanic students trail their white peers by an average of more than 20 points in math and reading assessments, a difference of about two grade levels. Black males, in general, fare even worse, a situation that has not changed much for the past 40 years. 

The Academy for Creating Excellence (ACE) was created to tackle this difference by supporting Black males in sixth through 12th grades in Seattle, Renton, and Highline schools. Founded in 2012 by Clarence Dancer Jr., Marcus Harden, and Willie Seals III, three lifelong educators and social service leaders, ACE fills the gap in the traditional academic and social-emotional educational experience of African American, African Diaspora, Latino, Pacific Islander, and Native American males. 

Even though research shows that students of color believe teachers of the same race have higher expectations of them and are more culturally sensitive, white educators made up approximately 88% of classroom teachers in Seattle public schools during the 2018–19 year. After working with ninth and 11th grade students, it became clear to ACE that one of the challenges to success was the lack of Black male teachers in the classroom. 

While approximately 45% of Washington’s K–12 public school students are non-white, only 10% of teachers are POC. The numbers are even worse in Seattle where Children of Color make up 53% of the student population. As a result, more than 17,000 Black students miss out on the benefits of having a racially and ethnically diverse teaching staff, with many students attending schools most of their lives where they have no same-race teachers. 

Anthony Washington, curriculum manager at ACE and a special education teacher at Garfield High (where he went to school), is well aware of the pitfalls in the education system when it comes to Black males and Black educators. As a result, ACE developed ACE Cafés, a safe environment for Black educators to network and get support.

“Part of the reason for bringing these Cafés together for ACE was because there was a need for healing among Black educators. Very often Black educators find themselves being ‘the only one’ in the building,” Washington said.

Since 1947, when Seattle hired its first Black teacher, the school board has made a commitment to diversify their teaching staff. Many Black parents, teachers, and community advocates believe that the school board is only offering lip service, and that there is no real commitment to change — evidenced by a lack of funding for equity programs, stagnant or widening performance gaps, and suspension rates at two to seven times higher for students of color. 

Every Seattle public school has a Building Leadership Team (BLT) to facilitate the decision-making process that affects academic achievement. Specific responsibilities include, among other things, overseeing the school budget. But Washington said that when Black educators are on the BLT, they struggle to be heard. As a result, even when the funding is available, the diverse leadership needed to assure that the resources are allocated equitably are not. 

Dr. Debra Sullivan, an attendee of the Café and the author of Cultivating the Genius of Black Children agrees. “Part of the issue with funding is that it’s racist funding,” she said. “Our students get plenty of money for special education, for social-emotional programs to help them get in touch with their feelings. [But] it’s really just another form of punishment. For example, Café attendees say that often administrators allocate unspecified funds to in-school suspension or mediation.” 

“If we don’t address the systemic racism,” says Sullivan, “… the funding that continues to flow will be funding that continues to traumatize and punish our children rather than support them.” 

ACE educators are trying to change that by providing support to African American teachers and staff. The Cafés, which typically occur every other month, now meet virtually due to COVID-19 — a shift that has allowed for out-of-state Black educators to participate. The Cafés have a keynote speaker, usually a Black male, that speaks to their area of expertise. The most recent Café, hosted by Washington on Nov. 3, had approximately 25 people in attendance and included an online survey to help determine the topics for upcoming meetings.

The group included teachers, administrators, staff, and paraprofessionals — such as instructional aides and teacher’s assistants — in King County schools and from across the country. This group of Black educators ranged from student teachers to professionals who have been in the business of education for up to 30 years. 

Washington said that the gender demographics of participants have shifted since the Cafés founding. “When we started this, the plan was to just focus on Black male educators. We know that only 2% of educators across the country — and a little bit lower in the state of Washington — are Black educators … And then we started to understand that the solutions we were seeking required a broader perspective. And so we made it available to Black women as well,” Washington explained, “Ultimately, it is about supporting our Black students, and there are more Black women in the classroom than there are Black men right now …”

Dr. Daudi Abe, faculty coordinator for Seattle Colleges for the Academy for Rising Educators (ARE) was the guest speaker for the most recent Café. ARE is a program that helps Seattle Public Schools high school seniors and recent graduates earn their teaching certificates. He has an M.A. in human development and a Ph.D. in education from the University of Washington (UW). He also wrote the book Emerald Street: A History of Hip Hop in Seattle. It was his dissertation, “The Effects of Non-traditional Instruction on the Classroom Discipline of African American Students Grades 4-8,” that led him to create ARE.

Abe found a relevant curriculum that speaks to the lives of students and engaging instructional methods to be important elements for success for Black students. But he considers the most important component by far to be personal relationships. Almost three-fourths of schools in Washington lack a single Black teacher. ARE is trying to create a roster of instructors who model the type of teaching that he wants Black students to receive. 

In his presentation, Abe pointed to studies that found Seattle to be worse than the national average regarding inequity inside schools. ARE’s mission is to produce diverse, homegrown practitioners who are culturally responsive, employ anti-racist, relationship-based, student-centered pedagogy, and engage in critical community discourse.

Abe said, based on that research, there is multigenerational educational trauma among numerous Black families in Seattle from their experience in Seattle schools. 

African American students are often judged on academic self-esteem and what he calls the “cool pose,” taken from the book Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America by Richard Majors and Janet Mancini Billson. It is defined as “a ritualized form of masculinity that entails behaviors … and carefully crafted performances that deliver a single, critical message: pride, strength, and control.” 

“When a student’s academic self esteem goes down, the cool pose can rise up, a defense mechanism that teachers often misinterpret as an indication that students no longer care about academic engagement,” Abe warns.

Abe said when he spoke about this at the prison in Monroe, several of the incarcerated men told him that their road to the prison industrial complex started with them getting expulsions and disciplinary referrals based on subjective disciplinary actions by their teachers in school. That’s why the road to incarceration is often called the school-to-prison pipeline. 

With the help of the community, ACE is building a new value system with a set of expectations that are rooted in non-European values and working to combat the historic inequities and misconceptions faced by Black students and educators alike. 

The next Café is on Jan. 26, 2022, from 4 to 6 p.m. PST. The guest speaker is Dr. William White, director of My Brother’s Teacher at UW. Their new podcast is available on Spotify (search for ACE Educators Café), Youtube, and Instagram.

Kathya Alexander is a writer, actor, storyteller, and teaching artist. Her writing has appeared in various publications like ColorsNW Magazine and Arkana Magazine. She has won multiple awards including the Jack Straw Artist Support Program Award. Her collection of short stories, Angel In The Outhouse, is available on Amazon.

📸 Featured image courtesy of Willie Seals III.

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