St. Louis County school district creates space for black girls to find their voice
For three years Shante Duncan has facilitated The L.O.V.E. Project with freshman girls at Lafayette High School in Wildwood. She talks to the girls about school and anything else they want to share about their personal lives.
This month, Duncan centered the session around important African-American females, from Ida B. Wells to Henrietta Lacks, a black woman whose cervical cancer cells advanced medical research.
“I thought that it would be very empowering for them to learn about women in our history and to realize we come from a beautiful and powerful culture, and we should be celebrated,” She said. “The girls should be proud of who they are and where they come from. They are enough regardless of which setting they are in.”
The Rockwood School District has implemented out-of-class programs to help black students have higher self-esteem to excel at school.
The district spans parts of Ballwin, Eureka, Chesterfield and Wildwood, Missouri, where more than 80 percent of the residents there are white. But Student Services Director Terry Harris said it shouldn’t be a surprise that there are initiatives there catering to students of color.
“Part of my pet peeve is that we also miss the kids who aren’t in heavily concentrated black areas. So again, Rockwood School District, we have African-American girls here, and they need that same love, right?” he said.
Some students of color in the district live in the county. But about 1,700 students are St. Louis residents who participate in the city’s Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation, or VICC, making the district the recipient of the largest number of students in the program, Harris said.
Over four years, Washington University Brown School of Social Work Professor Sheretta Butler-Barnes surveyed more than 700 black girls ages 12 to 16 in different school districts and socioeconomic backgrounds in cities across the Midwest.
During that time, she worked with middle school girls at the Rockwood School District to study the importance of racial identity and social-emotional learning to help black girls get through their education. The L.O.V.E. Project, a part of Sisters Helping Each Other Reach A Higher Height programming, is a continuation of that work.
“One of the most important things for me was to tell a narrative about girls of color that hasn’t been told before, and that is the importance of racial identity in the context of schooling,” Butler-Barnes said.
She said she observed that girls who felt as though they belonged in the school had higher academic achievement, higher GPAs and aspirations to attend college.
“It doesn’t really matter if you’re from a low-poverty environment or high-SES (socioeconomic status) environment, racial identity matters. And to have a very healthy sense of who you are sort of protects you in environments that may seem threatening to your identity,” she said.
Butler-Barnes said though racial identity is shaped by racial socialization, including how parents talk to their children and teach them about racial pride, barriers and equality, it's also shaped by teachers making students of color feel accepted.
For Marion Hassen, 14, the group personifies black girl magic.
“Black girl magic to me means black women empowering each other.” Hassen said. “I’m able to use my voice and talk to these girls and these girls can talk to me, and we kind of build each other up.”
Ashley Lisenby is part of the public radio collaborative “Sharing America,” covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This new initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland (Oregon). Follow Ashley on Twitter @aadlisenby.