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When Local Schools Fail Black Kids, Our Groups Provide Support, Love and Hope

Wood & Pierre: Black Mothers Forum in Phoenix and Eight Million Stories in Houston offer full-time learning, rooted in care, connection & affirmation

Janelle Wood and Marvin Pierre

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As communities gear up for a new school year, student well-being is at the heart of many conversations. We started Eight Million Stories (8MS) and Black Mothers Forum (BMF) to provide safe and supportive learning environments for students when local schools were unable to meet their needs. We hope that what we’ve learned through our work will inspire innovation and drive change. 

At Black Mothers Forum, our mission is to end the school-to-prison pipeline by focusing on young Black boys in grades K-8 who were subjected to harmful exclusionary discipline in their local schools in and around Phoenix. At Eight Million Stories in Houston, we re-engage older youth who are no longer enrolled in school and, in many cases, have become involved in the judicial system. 

While our models differ in many ways, they are similar in that they are rooted in care, connection and affirmation, which all students need in order to learn. We provide full-time learning settings outside of traditional schools where students feel like they matter. While schools often suspend students for various behaviors, our programs do not exclude, but use strategies to keep students in school. And we’re seeing results in learning, graduation rates and employment. At a time when so many, including the U.S. secretary of education, are calling for a reset in American education, our examples offer important lessons for all schools. 

Our students can engage in learning because we have repositioned adults from directing and correcting roles to supporting and affirming. At Black Mothers Forum, we hire learning guides who are mothers, teachers and community members from the same backgrounds as our students and who view them as “their own.” Under their guidance, younger and older students come together each day in a common area where everyone checks in to gauge well-being. It gives them a chance to express themselves. It’s personal. It’s like family. Our guides also use the curriculum as a starting point for more personal, engaging activities like one-on-one support, student-led conversations and enrichment that draw on our community’s rich resources. Guides also adjust daily routines to fit what students need.

This ethos of care and affirmation also guides our approach to behavior. For example, when children can’t manage themselves, instead of punishment, they get a hug. We do discipline by connecting, then redirecting. These strategies have led to learning gains. In February, we noted that students were significantly behind grade levels, so we focused on reading comprehension, recognizing that kids who cannot make meaning of what they are reading have trouble executing math and science problems as well. By June, we saw significant improvement in our students, some increasing one or two grade levels.

At Eight Million Stories, we are working with the most vulnerable, disengaged youth whom traditional schools have pushed out. We match adults to each student and start each day with a one-on-one check-in. We don’t send students away if they aren’t ready to learn when they get here. Rather, we recognize their challenges. We talk about their coursework and how to navigate upcoming court dates, job demands and financial, family and housing issues. We set up job training and enrichment — things that can overwhelm a counselor at a traditional school. 

This has also meant adopting flexible schedules that work around students’ needs. To help them get their diplomas, we create personalized learning plans with academic instruction for GED programming in the morning and optional supplemental tutoring and interventions in the afternoons — when their work schedules allow it. We don’t keep the kids here all day, forcing them to choose between school and work. The goal is to be as responsive as we can to students’ needs to help them develop the tools they need to succeed as adults — education credentials, job skills, stability and a sense of purpose and self-worth. 

In our programs, we want our kids to know every day that they’re loved, that people care about them and want them to be successful. At Black Mothers Forum, we’ve seen significant changes in our children, even in a few months. For example, one young boy who was often suspended or sent out of the classroom at his traditional school is now able to focus and learn here with us. Students feel supported. They feel loved and respected. When kids feel that way and know they’re not going to be penalized, they can relax, be themselves and learn. Similarly, at Eight Million Stories, so many kids have turned their lives around — and data show we’ve made an impact. Over our three years in operation, 54% of our students are now employed, 40% have completed their GED, 8% are pursuing postsecondary education and only 3% experienced recidivism.  

Creating learning experiences that enable all young people to thrive means a shift in stance from “We’ve always done it this way” to “Why do we have to?” All students need to feel cared about and to know they are a priority. We think our designs and those of some of the other promising models featured in a recent report from the nonprofit organization Transcend about community-led learning demonstrate what’s possible for schools. They also demonstrate how the most powerful changes can be imagined by those closest to the challenge.

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