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For Some Black Students, Remote Learning Has Offered A Chance To Thrive

Tracy J. Lee for NPR

Back when school was in person, Josh Secrett was always tired.

"I used to come home and just lay down and go to sleep for like hours," the eighth-grader says. "Wake up for dinner, go to bed."

Josh's mom, Sharnissa Secrett, says teachers at his Portland, Ore., school would sometimes discipline Josh for small things, like talking when he wasn't supposed to. Those interactions would hang over him the rest of the day.

"You look in my baby's eyes, when he used to come home, he was tired...mentally tired," she says.

But ever since his school went all-virtual, Josh has been doing much better.

His mom says there are fewer distractions, he can work independently and it's been easier for him to focus.

"It's like almost the noise is shut out and we can just get to the work."

Middle school is tough for just about everyone, but for Black students like Josh, school can be even harder. That's because, in addition to learning algebra and coping with social awkwardness, they're often navigating an educational system that historically hasn't supported them.

In Texas, students have been assigned history textbooks that downplay slavery and avoid talking about Jim Crow. In Massachusetts, Black girls have been reprimanded for violating dress codes that ban hair extensions. And across the country, according to federal data, Black students are more likely than white classmates to be disciplined at school.

In Oregon, where Josh lives, Black students have lower graduation rates. They're also less likely to be identified as "talented and gifted."

All that can take a toll on kids. But for some students like Josh, remote learning during the pandemic has offered an escape.

Of course, that hasn't been every student's experience. Between mental health struggles, limited Internet access and reduced child care options, distance learning isn't working for a lot of families. Research shows students with disabilities, those experiencing poverty and Black and Latinx students are among those especially at risk of falling behind.

Still, for Josh and kids like him, learning from home has given them a chance to thrive.

"Always on alert ... always deflecting"

At school, Josh learns from predominantly white teachers in classrooms full of predominantly nonwhite students. That demographic disparity is not exclusive to Portland. National data show the U.S. public school teacher population is overwhelmingly white, while more than half of the students those teachers interact with are nonwhite. And whether it's explicit or implicit, many teachers bring some kind of bias into the classroom.

Valerie Adams-Bass is a developmental psychologist at the University of Virginia who studies Black youth and media stereotypes. She says often, in the media, Black students are portrayed as being uninterested in education, and Black boys are portrayed as scary or intimidating.

"If that's what the teachers and administrators or their peers see, then oftentimes that is what they're responding to when they're engaging with Black students in reality."

There is emotional energy and a cognitive energy that goes along with navigating the spaces where you don't feel welcome or comfortable.

Adams-Bass says it's no surprise some Black students are doing better at home than they were at school. School can take a lot out of them.

"There is emotional energy and a cognitive energy that goes along with navigating the spaces where you don't feel welcome or comfortable. You're always on alert, you're always on, you're always deflecting, so you would be exhausted at the end of the day on top of growing," she says.

"I'm more energized. I want to do more things."

Before the pandemic, Josh says he wasn't connecting with his teachers. Instead, he put his energy into showing them he wasn't a "bad" kid.

"I didn't want the teachers to think I was the problem in the classroom, or what they thought of my skin color," he says. "I just wanted to show them I was better."

"Even that is problematic," his mom interjects. She and Josh's father often talk to him about growing up as a Black boy, and how to advocate for himself if he feels singled out by teachers or peers.

"You're not the model," she tells him. "They have to do better, to make you feel like you are seen and heard."

In the past, when that hasn't happened, Secrett says she would step in on her son's behalf.

"The nagging, the 'you're not doing well' — that damages our babies' self-esteem, especially our Black babies' and our kids of color."

Now, at home, both Josh and his mom say he's more comfortable. They say Josh and his teachers have been building relationships based around his classwork and academic achievements.

"I can interact with the teachers as I need." Secrett says. "He interacts with the teachers as they need."

Secrett says she's also seeing her son's confidence go up, and she's better able to monitor how he's feeling. "I know what's going on with him. I can maintain the emotional."

She does worry about the mental health impacts of Josh learning from home, but for now she's decided the benefits outweigh the costs.

I'm more energized. I want to do more things.

Josh can take breaks and relax, and he can spend more time with his family, including his older brothers. He's not exhausted at the end of the school day anymore.

"I'm more energized," Josh says. "I want to do more things."

How schools can help

The pandemic won't go on forever. Soon enough, Josh and his peers will be back in a physical classroom. And there are a few things schools can do to make learning in-person a better experience for all students, Adams-Bass says.

Schools could hire more teachers of color, and offer a curriculum that reflects students' culture and history.

"[Students] should see teachers, they should see administrators that look like them. And certainly, the curriculum should include them beyond one month of celebration," she explains.

Adams-Bass also recommends training current teachers to understand their own biases. She says students need caring relationships with their teachers, and "teachers that demonstrate and understand a knowledge and sensitivity to who the students are as individuals, as well as part of the classroom."

She also suggests forming groups where marginalized students can share their stories with each other.

"Affinity spaces allow them to talk about common experiences, to develop solutions, to support one another, and also to figure out ... how to navigate the larger space where they're learning."

Of course, not all of these things can happen overnight.

We admit that we're a bunch of white teachers teaching mostly nonwhite kids.

"Our staff is our staff," says Michael Contreras, Josh's principal at Ron Russell Middle School.

"We admit that we're a bunch of white teachers teaching mostly nonwhite kids."

Contreras says it's not easy to quickly diversify a school's teaching staff. But he's committed to supporting teachers "in teaching kids who don't necessarily have the same life experience as them." He says trust and strong relationships are important for teachers and students, no matter their differences.

Still, any changes at Ron Russell will come too late for Josh, who is heading to high school next year. His family is considering a high school in another district, one that may be a better fit.

With the right teachers, they're hoping Josh's newfound energy — both during school and after — extends beyond the pandemic.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Elizabeth Miller