The Hechinger Report, a non-profit organization that contributes stellar reporting on education issues, asked Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Nick Chiles to go to Mississippi to start chronicling the educational and societal woes of Black boys in the state, he jumped at the chance. Following is an excerpt of his first dispatch. We are pleased to share it here, at MyBrownBaby.

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Howard Stevenson is a professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania whose area of specialization is a topic most white educators would probably rather sit for a root canal than confront head-on: How their unwillingness or inability to deal with their own racial biases and stereotypes leads to horrible and stressful interactions with black boys in their classrooms—interactions that can have a devastating effect on the boys’ academic achievement.

For whites and certainly even for African Americans, thinking about, discussing and recounting a racial encounter can be enormously stressful. Stevenson demonstrated by having the participants in his Coseboc workshop pair up and tell each other about any racial incident that came to mind. When asked to share their feelings later, the participants were surprised and alarmed by how much stress they felt during the retelling, almost like they were living through it again.

Stevenson wants teachers to develop what he calls racial literacy, which means learning how to identify stress in their students and knowing how to recast the moment to bring down the student’s stress level. Stevenson says most of us develop avoidance skills when it comes to racial stress, rather than engagement skills.

“Unresolved trauma is killing black people all over the country,” he said. “We sacrifice healing for the sake of survival all too much, to our detriment.”

He pointed out a study showing that the stereotyping of young Black males as threatening is now so ingrained in the American psyche that they are viewed as the same level of threat as spiders and snakes.

Teachers’ lack of racial literacy is why Black students are 78 percent more likely to be suspended from school than white students, Stevenson said, noting that “failed bonding” in a teacher’s relationships with boys is one of the best predictors of their level of achievement.

Working with students in Philadelphia, Stevenson has demonstrated how doing things like lightly touching boys, physically mediating their conflicts and slowly building their trust can have an enormous impact on their performance. He explores these issues in his new book, Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools: Differences That Make a Difference (Teachers College Press, 2014).

Eddie Fergus, a professor at New York University who was lead author of the Coseboc standards, has done fascinating work on school factors that produce the highest levels of academic performance in black boys. His findings come from a three-year study of seven single-sex schools in New York City, Chicago, Houston and Atlanta that are made up of predominantly Black and Latino boys.

In another classroom at Jackson State, Fergus said that in order for the Black and brown students at these schools to perform well academically, they first had to have relationships with the adults in the school that feature care and trust.

“In order for them to ‘do’ school, they had to have adult-based relationships around care and trust that mattered to them,” Fergus told the two dozen educators who were hanging on his every word. “They were saying, ‘I can now trust you around my cognitive growth.’ But the relational engagement wasn’t as important for white kids — cognitive engagement was more important to them. They were saying, ‘I have to be interested.’”

Fergus said one of the teachers they studied who got great results with Black boys would get down on her knees when they were doing group work so that she would be at their eye level when she talked to them. “The little things mattered in relational building,” he said.

Hayden Frederick-Clarke, a black male educator who works with a large population of young Black males at his school in Boston, walked out of Fergus’s presentation shaking his head at the brilliant simplicity of it all.

“That is the entire key to education right there,” he said emphatically. “Basically he’s saying, if these boys don’t think you care about them, they’re not going to learn from you. That says it all.”

Fergus’ findings mirror the conclusions drawn by Christopher Chatmon, executive director of the Oakland school district’s Office for African-American Male Achievement, an innovative office created four years ago by Oakland school superintendent Tony Smith in response to glaring deficiencies in Black male performance. When Chatmon studied the teachers who had the best results with Black boys, he found it was also the ones who had developed tools to forge positive relationships with them, such as standing out in the hall and greeting them with big smiles as they entered the classroom.

Chatmon and his staff interviewed hundreds of Black boys about their school experiences. “Over 80 percent of the brothers said the moment we step onto the school campus, the adults treat us as if we’ve done something bad,” Chatmon told me, “and we haven’t even done anything yet.”

Read the entirety of Nick’s stunning piece, “Can the hundreds of education experts who flocked to Mississippi improve life for the state’s Black boys?” at the Hechinger Report.

Photo credit: Steven Depolo for Flickr Creative Commons

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Denene Millner

Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.


  1. Brilliant.

  2. Wow! This will certainly help me advocate for my sons who have learning disorders. This may also explain why my kindergarten son is so attached to his teacher. She has been awesome with him all year even in his darkest days before he was diagnosed with PANDAS. She is young, energetic and still sees the good in children.

  3. Can not wait to read more from
    Nick about his findings-and these helpful examples of best practices. I’m meeting with the Super in our district Friday-to talk about this very issue-and will be siting this and the Hechinger report.

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