Advice about Black Kids & School

Archived Q&A and Reviews

Keeping black boys successful in the classroom

Dec 2013

I work in a public Berkeley elementary school, and am saddened year after year as I see many boys of color go from bright, inquisitive, eager learners in Kindergarten, to 4th and 5th graders who are constantly ejected from the classroom to the office or hallway because they cannot or will not control their behavior in class. We have about 6 boys who spend as much time sitting on a bench somewhere in trouble as they do sitting at their desk in class. The teachers are torn between wanting to help these kids and needing to teach the other 25 kids in the class. How do we stop this downfall of boys of color in so short a time? They come in with such promise, and leave with such troubles! I know the school only has them for 6 hours a day, and we don't know what they have to deal with at home, but I'd love some input, and ideas of how to help these kids. Mentors? Small group learning instead of being in a class of 30 kids? They have counselors, reading coaches, math coaches, and dedicated teachers & principals, but the trouble persists and the cycle continues... Something Needs to Change!

While I am thrilled to see this topic raised and discussed, I am somewhat dismayed at the implication that the family is to blame. If the children come in as bright and eager learners, the family must have been doing something right to begin with during the first 5 years of life. And just because a teacher/principal is dedicated and even a wonderful teacher and a nice person, doesn't mean they necessarily have the tools to be aware of or work against institutionalized racism that contributes to the problem. Additionally, at our Berkeley public school there is no teacher in the classroom that is male and African/African American. This may be the same with your school. While I don't have the answers, I sign this Hoping my son's spirit won't be broken!

Here's one innovative (yet very concrete) little program that has made a difference: Mouse Squad They train kids starting in 4th grade to be part of a team of computer techs in the classroom! The kids self-esteem is boosted when they ''come to the rescue'' to help our poor tech-challenged teachers, and the classroom teachers and schools benefit as well. Obviously the STEM skills aquired are tremendous, too. STEM plus cool factor--what more could you want? The program is fairly inexpensive to set up in a school, and there has been some interest by Berkeley Schools Fund people in helping. Check it! Tech Enthusiast

Read Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys, by Jawanza Kunjufu. The problem is not the boys. The problem is the dominant school culture / culture of the teachers is typically white and female. Read the book, and then share it with your co-workers. Mother of African-American boy

I commend you for your active concern. I'm a 62 year old black male San Francisco school teacher, who has been studying this issue since my return to teaching in 2007. I have discovered that students are carrying around a lot of unresolved baggage and are reaching out. Teachers often fail to realize that they may have been the most stable adult figure in a student's life since that started school.

Earlier this year I taught a neat black male kindergartener who would suddenly become angry at a classmate during the day. He would stand straight up with his arms stiff at his side, hands in a fist, teeth grits, brow wrinkled and both eyes watering. He just stood there with his little chest pumping, but he never physically lashed out at the other students. It was obvious that someone had taught this young man right and wrong behavior, and the importance of self-control. But something kept triggering this reaction. I believe it could have been the lack of the right mixture love and discipline at home or school, or internal issues of self-confidence, self-esteem and perhaps a feeling that he was a bit different from his other classmates. I have been using my technical background and experiences as a substitute teacher to address the last three possibilities in my list. I'm using various fundamentals Tech, math, science and language arts to stimulate these students. Thanks again for your concerns. CR

I'm not exactly sure if this will be helpful to the on-going conversation here, but... there is an excellent book written by Beverly Daniel Tatum, Ph.D.:''Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race. A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity'' (1997). Ms. Tatum (at the time of the printing) is a Professor of Psychology and Dean of Mount Holyoke College. My understanding it that this esteemed book has been used in courses in Education at the graduate level at various colleges. Ms. Tatum also wrote ''Assimilation Blues: Black Families in a White Community.'' I got introduced to this book about 15 years ago because my former partner's racially-mixed son was attending an essentially all-white, upper-class, middle school in Marin. There was only one teacher of color at that time and the school did not even have any special events for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day celebration. His Dad and I were both concerned about where, and how, he would find suitable, and excellent, role-modeling from African-American adult professionals as well as school-age peers. It's an important topic for ALL of us as an interracial society--and world--and I believe that the way we educate our kids, and ourselves, about race, class, and cross-cultural backgrounds, is key to a better-functioning and caring community. Molly

Biracial Son Wants School w/ More Black Kids

March 2004

My son attends a private school that prides itself in diversity. He is in a class of about 20 kids 3 of them being black and the rest are mostly white. He is mixed race but doesn't have contact with the black side of his family. I feel a bit concerned because he has expressed that he would like a school that has more black kids. I asked him why and he didn't really give me any reasons. I told him that I could look into it but he of course expressed the worry about leaving his friends. I thought to get him involved in some more activities that would expose him to more kids like him ethnically and in a family/economic sense --as he does definitly notices the differences between himself and his friends (unlike nearly all the kids in his class we are not homeowners or financially equipped to do/have many of the things most of his friends families do and have.) I see him starting to see himself as a black young man where as before he didn't really talk abt. being a certain race. I have also become aware that other people --the public---are looking at him as a young black man with negative associations--and not a ''cute little boy'' (not all of course) but I am seeing how things are changing in that sense.I really want him to have a positive self image and am concerned that his being in this school environment and extra curricular activities where he is the only black boy may be making him feel like he is very different and longs for a sense of belonging in a more comfortable way and not feeling alienated. I would like any advice that someone may have if having gone through this or any ideas.

This may not be exactly the kind of response you were looking for, and you didn't say how old your son is; but if he is still elementary-school age, I would recommend that you look into Northern Light. Northern Light is a private elementary school on Redwood Rd. in Oakland with a student population that is predominently black or biracial and truly diverse in terms of family backgrounds and economic status. I am only familiar with the school from the standpoint of a reporter who did a story about a student; but from what I heard from students and parents when I wrote my story last summer, I think Northern Light runs a phenomenal program. They provide a great deal of after-school care (so that your son could potentially be involved in extracurricular activities with his schoolmates). Teaching about leaders and hero/ines of all racial backgrounds is something the school does is a way that outdistances by a thousand leagues the standard PC emphasis you'll find anywhere else in the Bay Area--it's ingrained in every aspect of the school's environment. You mentioned finances are tight--Northern Light offers a huge variety of scholarships. Their program may not be for everybody, but it seems to me it might be appropriate for your son. Web address is Good luck. darcy

Hum this brings back memories..I think its really important for your son to have a strong sense of who he is, where he comes from and to make sure that he gets his African American roots. If moving him to another school isn't really an option, then think about having him participate in prog! rams that have a higher percent of african americans who attend. One suggestion perhaps is Boy Scouts. There is a predominately African American Troop at Allen Temple in Oakland. Another way is to join or attend an African American Church that has many youth such as Bethel or Allen Temple to name a few in Oakland. I know from experience what you son is going through, having gone through similar experience as a youth, it took me years to figure out where I finally belonged. I wish my parents when growing up were not so color blind because the world isn't and by telling your kids that all people are the same is false. The world treats you according to what you look like. Raising an African American son is harder. The expectations and fears for AA boys is higher, they will be stopped by the police and most of the time for no reason. Its really important that your son has an African American adult male who can help him through transistions. If you want to further discuss this, please feel free to contact me via my email. cm

Regarding your biracial son. I can completely understand how he feels.I could go on for ever on this subject but I promise I won't. He may not know how to put it into words or may not want to yet. It's natural for him to want to have more associations with other Black kids. You did not mention where you live but there is a wonderful organization called Destiny Arts in Oakland (597-1620 or They have martial arts classes as well as dance classes. Their main goal is to help children of all ages with their self-esteem, and conflict resolution skills within the context of the martial arts.! There are a lot of people from mixed families and lots of Black children as well. This or another organization like it would be a nice balance for him. A bit of both worlds sounds great to me. He will FEEL the difference and when and if he chooses to talk about it there will be people around who understand of what he speaks. My son is younger but he loves it and so do I. I love the feeling of being in a group of all different sorts of people. We drive all the way from Richmond to be there.They are a group of very commited people who have a passion for what they do. Glad to hear you are listening to what your son has to say. Loving Destiny Arts!

We are white parents of 2 African-American boys. You are so lucky that your son is clear in his wishes. You don't say how old is your son or what is the other ''half'' of his race but a mixed African-American boy will b! e judge as a black boy by the majority of white people. And being judged as black, he will be judged as an black adult in his teen years. You have already picked up on that. Your child is starting to figure out his racial identity and he will definitely need exposure to his entire culture. If the only exposure he has is from the 2 other black kids in his class and what he sees in society at large, it might give him a distorted view of what it means to be black in the U.S. There are wonderful books about racial identity that you should read to make up your own mind. My favorite is ''Why are all the black kids sitting together at the cafeteria'' by Daniel Beverly Tatum. Pact, an adoption alliance, has a great ''best of press'' books on racial identity and another one specifically on bi-racial racial identity. They would be a great source of information for you even though your child is not adopted since they specialize in ad! option of children of color and transracial parenting. They have a website with book suggestions at good luck

My 5 year old son is biracial. Last night he said that he does not like having darker skin as most of his friends have lighter skin. I too, am wondering how to proceed with this. It is not the first time he has said this. I feel that I just have to impress that everyone is different. I get the sense that your son is a bit older. I look forward to seeing other responses. anon

I have been reading ''why do all the black kids sit together in the cafeteria'' (or similar title) and maybe you should run out and get this book. Honest discussions about race are very important and your instincts about your son having a positive self-image are right on target, according to the premise of this book. This is not practical advice on finding friends for your son, but the book addresses how to discuss race with children of different ages. eve

I'm an African-American who grew up in all white neighborhoods so I think I can relate some to your child's issue. Somewhere between the ages of 6-9, you realize that your hair, skin, and facial features make you different than everyone else in your school. And at that age belonging (witness girl ''posses'' and boy ''clubs'' in 1st-3rd grades) really matters. So having other students that look like you helps validate yourself. Since transferring schools isnt always an answer (wasn't in my case) I'd see this as the beginning of helping your son feel comfortable with his African-American heritage. I know from experience, that you can't take this for granted. Either your child will feel estranged from that part of his heritage or will take his cues from media stereotypes and may embrace the ''thug life'' usually depicted on tv as being what ''black'' is. Do you have family that live in primarily black neighborhoods and with whom your son could spend regular time with (every summer I was sent to the South to stay with relatives - that's where I learned to dance, listen to ''Philly'' and ''Memphis'' soul, and really was exposed to every day black culture). And, while my parents chose to belong to a very progressive ''multiracial'' church, attending Southern Baptist church with my grandparents was incredibly important to my cultural self-identity. Because of ties to my Southern relatives, to this day I remember going to a graduation ceremony at an all black college with Julian Bond speaking and feeling really proud and part of a great history of struggle and achievement.

I'm now married to an African-American man and live in a ''mixed'' neighborhood that is probably 40% black (and our children go to a public school that is probably 35% black). Even so, we've never taken our children's postive African-American image for granted. We have alot of black art on our walls, buy books with black and other charactors of color, don't allow tv shows that we believe perpetuate negative black sterotypes, and regularly discuss issues of positive black identity (and listen to opera and enjoy French and Italian culture so we are hardly Afro- centric).

From what I know from friends, at some point your child will also deal with how he is black but also white. But that's another topic...
Sometimes a stranger in a strange land

It sounds like more exposure to biracial & african american kids/families could help. You could do this through sports or other activities outside of school. Since my children are also biracial, I've been reading a great book called ''Does Anyboday Else Look Like Me: A Parent's Guide to Raising Multiracial Children''. The author gives concrete ideas on issues multiracial children deal with at different ages & age appropriate discussions we should be having with them. Jill

Have you thought of joining a church? You may want to check some out to see if there are any that suit you and your son and get involved with church activities for youth. Then your son could stay in school with his buddies. anon