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Black Girls At Risk Program seeks to elevate identity and self-perception

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DENVER — The achievement gap between white and Black students has existed for decades. While thousands of books, studies and research have been dedicated to addressing this issue, it remains pervasive.

Much of the focus has been placed on Black boys as they have been viewed as most at risk. However, data now suggests that equally at risk of underperformance are Black girls – a demographic in public schools that has largely flown under the radar.

While programs exist that focus on African American males, programs that concentrate specifically on the academic performance of African American females are significantly lacking. The consequences are proving devastating.

This lack of focus on Black girls has resulted in increased suspensions and expulsions along with other disciplinary actions, ultimately leading to an increased number being pushed out of school due to so-called behavioral issues.

As a Denver Public Schools (DPS) administrator, Plashan McCune, Ed.D., began to notice this lack of programmatic support.

“I was working with programs targeting African American male students through the Black Male Initiative when I realized that there was no similar program for our girls,” McCune said.

As a member of the district’s leadership, she was privy to student data so began to take a deeper look at the academic outcomes of Black girls in DPS. Her suppositions were confirmed. Programs aimed at the needs of Black female students were essentially non-existent throughout the district.

When she was a student attending school in south Chicago, McCune admits that daily interactions with positive, professional Black female teachers made all the difference in the world.

“At least I was connected to my blackness in positive ways. Our girls here don’t see that they are beautiful and amazing,” she said.

When she inquired about girl’s programs, she was told, “You’re lucky to have a male program.”

Somewhat stunned and disappointed by the reply, she set out to change the situation by building a program of her own. She established Higher Learning U in 2017.

“Although Black girls here in Denver may not have to contend with the harsh realities of growing up in an area like south Chicago, they suffer from a real connection with role models who look like them. As a result, they have few links with their identity. There are real issues of self-perception. They can’t be what they can’t see,” McCune insisted.

But, it wasn’t until she began to visit schools around DPS, while considering a potential program model that she truly recognized how deep the need was.

“Walking into schools as a professional Black female dressed in executive, corporate attire seemed to stop Black girls in their tracks,” she admitted. “I found myself surrounded with them asking who I was and if I was coming to their school to work? I found myself saddened by this.”

Following those experiences, McCune became even more determined to develop programs for Black girls in the school district. She convened a meeting with educational colleagues at George Washington High School—people who she believed might share her passion for the mission—as a preliminary planning effort.

She said there were tons of questions and discussion. She presented the data that established the need for the program. While the group agreed on the necessity, there was zero consensus on the how and what of the program.

“I left the meeting discouraged. But, after a brief conversation with one of my mentors in the district, I decided that I should forge ahead alone,” she said. “I had no resources, no contacts and no money but I was determined to find every amazing Black woman in Denver and ask for their help.”

What came from her initial effort was a program that was basically intended to be a one-time event. The negative feedback continued, with others suggesting that she’d be lucky to get 30 girls to attend from the entire district. She began to ask family and friends to help. More than 160 girls and almost as many volunteers showed up for the program.

“It was amazing. Teachers from around the district brought their students to participate; members of the mayor’s staff, state legislators, and members from the religious community as well as business professionals took part in the day. It felt very spiritual and communal,” she said.

However, as she tried to replicate her effort, the support waned. Nevertheless, research indicates that programs of this nature can yield positive results.

According to an article titled “Protecting Black Girls,” by Monique W. Morris with the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, we must pay more attention to the development of Black female students.

“We need to establish culturally-competent, gender-responsive tools—like decision-making instruments that help teachers respond equitably to students,” Morris wrote. “It is critical that investments be made immediately in the following areas: engaging them actively in leading and learning in schools; providing information about internships, financial aid, and programs for students who are among the first in their families to attend college; and bringing in speakers who show them a variety of career and college options. This helps girls connect what they're learning in the classroom with skills required for the workplace.”

The programs under Higher Learning U are designed for students ranging from middle school to college. Thus far, the program has included: a series of training sessions on career readiness; a virtual sister-to-sister effort, which focuses on mentoring relationships between college students and middle and high school girls; a leadership retreat to the mountains; a program called Worthy of Love and Respect that brings in Black male professionals to speak with the girls about relationships; and the Black Excellence Virtual Fashion Show, held April 23.

Additionally, McCune said she is hopeful to take the girls to Uganda, Africa, when COVID-19 is no longer a travel issue.

“We have a group that we are working with in Uganda, and are in the process of planning a possible leadership summit there,” she said.

The biggest challenge facing the program is its ability to attract the funding needed to sustain its offerings. The founder has largely funded the program herself through sales of her book, “Trauma and Postsecondary Success,” which presents tools to help view and change the behavior of trauma-impacted children.

As a 501(c)3 nonprofit, the program is eligible for tax-deductible contributions and has received support from the Denver Foundation and Rose Foundation, but much more is needed to keep the program viable for the 2021-22 school year. Programs are scheduled to begin in September.

Editor’s note: For more information or to make a contribution, email Plashan McCune at the Higher Learning U Program at higherlearningu@gmail.com or call 720-441-4308.

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