FAIR LAWN, N.J. — Eight-grader Robeson Bennett is the only Black boy in his honors classes and one of only a handful of Black students in the entire honors program at a middle school in West Orange.
And his parents had to fight to get him into the program. Despite having straight As and his teachers’ support, the testing 14-year-old Robeson took determined that he was “not appropriate” for honors classes, his mother said.
Robeson was in all honors classes by the sixth grade, making the honor roll every quarter. Now, taking classes at home amid the pandemic, he is doing exceedingly well.
“I am able to be in a peaceful environment in an enclosed space in my room,” said Robeson.
His mom, Micaela, said classrooms traditionally cater to white students, so “a Black boy may do better in his bedroom; he’s more comfortable,” she said.
The pandemic is having an undeniable impact on education, as the remote classroom has caused students and teachers to alter their learning methods and philosophy. But for some Black students, the distance-learning environment has brought an unexpected benefit: They can evade the biases and institutionalized racism often found in a traditional classroom setting.
In addition, parents of Black students are finding opportunities to observe more and advocate when necessary. Students are also dodging negative race-based interpersonal interactions that may have harmed them emotionally and hindered academic performance.
“We understood this years ago, that our children were not going to get the type of opportunities that white kids get,” said Lisa Wilson, principal founder of CARE Coalition on Anti Racism Education, based in California. “Education is designed for us to constantly question our humanity. That is what our educational system has done for Black people in America.”
Black girls and boys typically receive more disciplinary infractions in school than their counterparts for their hair, the way they are dressed or the way they present themselves, which can often be misunderstood, said Sheretta Butler-Barnes, an associate professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, whose work focuses on the educational and health outcomes of Black American youth.
That, too, has improved in a distance-learning environment.
“We are seeing less negative chastisement; they are not being harassed,” she said. “At home, they are able to have their identities affirmed.”
That is associated with higher achievement outcomes over time. And it creates healthier well-being overall, Butler-Barnes said.
Learning beyond the classroom
Robeson, whose school day now ends at 1 p.m., has had time to do things that pique his interest and further affirm him as a Black student. He attended a program called Role Models for Successful Manhood, which his principal, who is a Black man, went through and recommended to Robeson.
The program is part of the WEB DuBois Scholars Institute out of Princeton University.
Because of his participation, this summer Robeson will be learning at Wake Forest’s infectious disease and sports mechanics program and Tulane’s infectious disease program. Both will teach these subjects with an awareness of the Black experience in America.
“This really all came out of his involvement in Role Models for Successful Manhood,” Micaela Bennett said.
It means Robeson also has time for saxophone lessons with his grandfather via Zoom. Every afternoon, the jazzy melody reminds the Bennett family what time it is, their own quasi school bell.
While remote learning has brought some advantages, it has also exacerbated educational disparities, Butler-Barnes said. She worries that not enough conversations are taking place about the disparities in schools, especially the ones that often affect Black students.
As students transition back to school, she hopes “that we are able to really meet the needs of already existing students that were in vulnerable places and that were in schools that were underfunded,” she said.
Anthony Keys, a Black social studies teacher at an elementary school in Montclair, New Jersey, is part of just 2% of Black male teachers in America. Overall, nearly 80% of teachers are white females.
He has been teaching his class virtually, with topics that include the Reconstruction Era and voter suppression. Keys said the success or failure of remote learning for Black students depends on the individual situation.
For instance, some of his Black students were at a disadvantage because of a lack of internet access or technology problems. Keys said he also found that some of his students had household chores, like looking after siblings or doing laundry, that distracted them from the classroom.
Being one of the few Black students is not foreign for Queenie-Michelle Asare-Gyan, 16, a high school junior from Fair Lawn. This year being fully remote, Queenie-Michelle has been able to advocate for the Black students at her school and challenge what she says is a racist curriculum.
“I’ve been able to have the time to actually put effort into causing an actual change in the bias and ignorance that Black students originally faced at my school,” said Queenie-Michelle.
During the remote school year, Queenie-Michelle and a friend formed a Black Student Union.
“We made it our goal this year to make our school and the social environment there more comfortable for Black students,” Queenie-Michelle said.
She said she spent the majority of her freshman and sophomore years with a group of white students who would toss the N-word around like a basketball and make explicitly racist remarks. She said it was emotionally damaging.
Her drive for learning decreased, and it was reflected in her schoolwork. That changed when school went remote.
“Toward the end of sophomore year and the entirety of my junior year, my grades have looked so much better,” Queenie-Michelle said.
“I’m not constantly in contact or having day-to-day physical meet-ups with these kids who made me feel very uncomfortable and deteriorating my emotional health,” she said.
Toward the end of the 2020 school year, Queenie-Michelle made Black Lives Matter posters online. A group of students at her school went into a public group chat to bully her “and say a bunch of racist things about me and Black people in general,” she said. “They were making fun of police brutality and saying that Black people deserve it and a bunch of absolutely grotesque things.”
But in the remote setting, she said, she has been able to attend therapy to cope with the assaults and emotional trauma of racism.
“Ignorance doesn’t just stop because everyone is home,” Queenie-Michelle said.
The shorter day is allowing Queenie-Michelle to participate in a virtual internship with the United Nations. She also writes for a magazine, Gen-Blk Zine, whose target audience is Black girls, and an up-and-coming organization, Students for BIPOC, covering the Black community, Black liberation and politics.
With those activities and track practice, she said she wouldn’t be able to do it all if she was classes were in-person full time.
Getting Black children home safely
Butler-Barnes, of the Brown School at Washington University, said the advantages of the virtual space may persuade more Black parents to home-school their children.
“At first, it was the kids are in this environment and teachers can say what did or did not happen, but parents are jumping in through this virtual learning environment,” she said. “I think that we are going to have a surge of Black parents home-schooling because these are the ways that we can protect our children.”
Butler-Barnes cited several examples she found in which parents got involved because they had access through the virtual environment.
“We had instances of where a parent had to step in and interrupt the class because a teacher was saying insensitive racist remarks about George Floyd,” she said. There was another incident Butler-Barnes cited, in California, in which a teacher forgot to turn off the camera and went on a racist rant about Black families.
Black parents can also help their children cope with the epidemic of Black people being killed by police. Some schools prohibit discussions of that topic, said Butler-Barnes.
Black parents also have less anxiety when their children are learning at home, simply because they don’t have to worry about their safety going to and from school, Butler-Barnes said.
“Parents are preparing for it and making sure that our children get home safe, because even while their children are learning at home they are having conversations about how to engage with police,” she said.
Parents also have more control over reading materials, said Butler-Barnes, supplementing material that affirms Black identities in a way that typical school readings do not.
Micaela and Sahib Bennett are doing just that with Robeson, who is currently reading “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” by Bryan Mealer and William Kamkwamba.
The story is about a young boy who figured out how to build a windmill and save his African village from drought.
Follow Shaylah Brown on Twitter at @shaylah_brown.