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Last month 106-year-old Virginia McLaurin danced with joy upon meeting the Obamas. Born in 1909, the centenarian has lived through 18 different presidents. But meeting Barack and Michelle Obama was a major achievement for the South Carolina native. Her excitement stemmed from coming face-to-face with a U.S. president and first lady of the same race: “I thought I would never live [to see] … a black president.”

While McLaurin waited many years for this accomplishment, there’s a generation of kids—pre-teens who came of age over the last eight years—who’ve never known anything else. I recently gathered a group of racially and ethnically diverse middle-schoolers to get their take on the significance and impact of America’s first black president.

Melinda D. Anderson: In 2008, when he was elected, there was a lot written about President Obama being the first black president. What does it mean to you that America elected a black man to be its president?

Josh Frost, 13: It shows we can change, because it shows that not only white people can be in the government. More people of different races would like to be president now, because Barack Obama became president. Before there were only white presidents, so they probably thought they had to be like them to do the job.

Avi Kedia, 12: It shows something [about] America, that somebody from a different race, other than white, can win the presidential election. We shouldn’t base the presidents just on race, we should base it on their actual skill. But it shows that somebody from a different race can rise up and go against what everybody else says and win. I could be president if I really wanted to. I just have to push myself. And it doesn’t matter if I’m Indian. It opens the door for everything really. If someone black can be president after it forever being white presidents, maybe a woman can be president. Or we can have a gay president. None of that even matters anymore.

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(Photo: The White House)

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Black girls are routinely mischaracterized, mislabeled, and mistreated—and the issue begs for a deeper engagement and understanding from parents, community members, and especially educators. A new book, Pushout, examines the criminalization of Black girls in schools and offers interventions that can lead to more productive possibilities for these young women. My latest author Q&A explores this topic in more detail.

Melinda D. Anderson: Clearly some of the most blistering accounts emanate from black girls’ public-school experiences, where racialized and gendered expectations seem to leave them feeling simultaneously targeted and invisible. The use of zero tolerance and harsh school discipline is a culprit, along with the attitudes and behaviors of school staff. How do these elements work in tandem to derail black girls’ education?

Monique W. Morris:  When we combine latent misperceptions about black femininity with punitive discipline policies, we are paving the way for black girls to be disproportionately pushed out of schools. Black girls are the only group of girls overrepresented in all discipline categories for which data are collected by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. That is alarming. Zero tolerance and other punitive policies in schools leave many school leaders and educators with only one response to young people who act out.

[Further,] black girls express that a caring teacher is most important in their learning environment. When they connect with a teacher and feel a genuine love and appreciation for their promise as scholars, their relationship with school is more positive. However, research studies have found that African American children receive “more criticism and less support” from teachers—conditions that could alienate and push black children away from learning. Recent examples in New York City and Georgia demonstrate the hard work that is still needed to produce learning environments that acknowledge and invest in the positive potential of black girls.

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Tucson Ethnic studiesJswood-p1:: Tucson Magnet High School senior Evon Moreira,EVON MOREIRA, CQ, 17, middle with Honk sign, protests with fellow students and faculty(in front of her high school), a law that would ban Mexican American studies and other ethnic study programs at Tucson Unified School District schools, Thursday May 6, 2010 in Tucson, Ariz. The law is waiting for the signature of Arizona's Governor Jan Brewer, JAN BREWER, CQ.
5-6-10 Photo by James S. Wood

Ethnic studies has been around for over a century. Black studies, Chicano studies, cultural studies, multicultural studies—the name may have changed over the years, but a rose by any other name can still be a lightning rod for controversy. A new study linking ethnic studies to measurable student gains has sparked some interest in how to scale up such programs. While research finds ethnic studies works for some students, scholars in the field urge it’s good for all students—and the battle over ethnic studies rages on.

Indeed, today, school leaders and student activists, in communities of all sizes, are embracing ethnic-studies courses as a way to expand and diversify classroom content. Earlier this year members of the Providence Student Union, a youth-led organizing group, kicked off a new campaign advocating for ethnic studies for all high-school students. In making their case, student leaders called attention to the glaring disparity between the city’s public-school curriculum and the students it teaches; 90 percent of those enrolled in Providence schools are students of color. The student union’s review of a nearly 2,000-page history textbook found that less than 5 percent of the book was devoted to the contributions of people of color. “I’m Nigerian. I’m Muslim. I’m also an American,” the high-school student Latifat Odetunde told The Providence Journal, noting stories like his are what history books “leave out.”

But both Brooks and Charles state that this shift in knowledge and understanding is equally important for white students. Ethnic-studies courses dispel myths, Brooks said, and build connections among students as opposed to divisions. “Similar to students of color, white students have been miseducated about the roles of both whites and people of color throughout history,” she said, and culturally relevant lessons allow white children to “not only learn about people of color, but also white people’s roles as oppressors and activists fighting for racial change. This is very important because often whites feel there is nothing [they] can do to change racism.”

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(Photo: NYU Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies) 

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Are we replicating existing inequities for some students of color when we place the singular focus on coding? Is it preferable to integrate coding camps and classes with learning opportunities in schools? These are some of the questions answered in my recent article, titled “Will the Push for Coding Lead to ‘Technical Ghettos’?

Coding boot camps are just the first step, Brown said, arming students with simple skills when more complex diagnostic thinking is required to be truly skilled in the field. “The former is training, while the latter is education,” she said. This issue takes on greater significance when students of color are considered, raising issues of equity in the drive to racially diversify the tech sector and underscoring the difference between an occupation and a profession.

Kamau Bobb, the program director in computer-science education at NSF and Brown’s colleague, notes that the dominant argument in support of youth of color learning to code is to “get a good job”—creating a stratified system where students from racial and ethnic groups, and lower socioeconomic backgrounds, are prepped for work as service technicians and helpdesk agents. “While those [tech jobs] are needed and noble, they are at the very bottom … in terms of pay and prestige,” he said. Bobb contrasts this with white and Asian middle-class students who are urged to attend college and major in computer science. “What’s missing from this model is that students of color are offered a choice that truncates their ambition.”

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