Research Insights: Black Girls’ Experiences in Independent Schools

Summer 2020

By Charlotte E. Jacobs, Ramona Weber

Research_Highlights_ColorBG_Final-(1).jpgAt a time when politics and race continue to divide the country, conversations around diversity, equity, and inclusion have taken on even greater importance at home and in our schools. Independent schools in particular have been wrestling with how to have such conversations as they relate to the makeup of their school communities and to the sense of belonging that students of color feel. Some schools have made progress in inclusion efforts for students with marginalized identities, but so many schools continue to face real challenges in creating school environments where all students feel at home.
There were 168,254 students of color enrolled in NAIS member schools in the 2018–2019 school year, according to NAIS’s Data and Analysis for School Leadership. And as the latest US Census data continue to indicate, the US population is becoming more diverse. Given this, it’s even more important that students feel accepted in their schools based on their race and ethnicity and also that their intersectional identities—gender, class, age, ability, sexual orientation, and religion—are fully acknowledged and embraced. The classroom should serve as a safe space for children and adolescents to express themselves, their heritage, and their stories without experiencing negative social, academic, or institutional stigmas.
Through our work—Jacobs’ work over the past nine years and Jacobs’ and Weber’s collaborative work over the past two years at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education—along with the work of other academics in the diversity and education field, we’ve started to address the issue of inclusion through research, with a specific focus on the experiences of black girls in independent schools. Because of the intersectional nature of black girls’ identities, we believe that a particular focus on their academic, social, and emotional experiences within the context of independent schools is an important contribution to the ongoing conversation about how independent schools can become more inclusive and equitable spaces. 

Uncovering Experiences

In 2016, Jacobs wrote “Developing the ‘Oppositional Gaze’: Using Critical Media Pedagogy and Black Feminist Thought to Promote Black Girls’ Identity Development,” an article in The Journal of Negro Education, which explored how teachers often silence black girls in the classroom and how black girls choose to resist the expectation that they fulfill particular racialized gender norms of being quiet and unquestioningly follow the rules. Research conducted in 2015 at the African American Policy Forum (AAPF) and the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies, which Jacobs cites in her article, shows that when black girls disrupt this norm by speaking out or asserting their needs in class, disciplinary consequences often follow. In response to the AAPF report, researchers have started to develop theoretical frameworks for how to create classroom environments in which black girls can thrive.
Ruth Nicole Brown, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, developed a framework highlighting the creative potential of black girlhood. A Framework for Black Girlhood centers on the notion that black girlhood should be celebrated through the memories and experiences of being young, black, and female and presents a place for sowing the seeds of activism. Brown suggests that black girls’ personal stories should be heard, that their lived experiences should be valued, and that schools can and should create spaces for this storytelling.
How can independent schools create safe spaces in which all students of color can authentically share the representations of who they are in a way that can be celebrated? As a way to explore this question, Jacobs began examining the experiences of middle school black girls in independent schools as part of a pilot study in 2012. The girls shared how important it was to them to have an affinity space—with a trusted adult—where they could share their successes as well as their challenges in school. Another finding: They viewed this space as one for action, where they could strategically discuss how to make their needs known to the broader school community.
Building on these two findings, Jacobs conducted a broader study in 2015–2016. She created black girl affinity group spaces where she listened to the stories of black girls in grades nine to 12 who were students at two different independent schools in the mid-Atlantic region. On a weekly basis during lunch or an activity period, Jacobs met with 25 black girls: About one-third of the girls were “lifers,” having attended their school since pre-K or kindergarten; one-third of the girls entered in middle school; and one-third entered in ninth grade. She also interviewed the girls one on one about their particular journey through their schools. Though the girls had been members of their school communities for different lengths of time, their experiences were strikingly similar. Surprisingly, the differences in the girls’ experiences between being a black girl who attended a coed school versus an all-girls school were minimal. At the core of the research was the question, “what is it like to be a black girl in your school?”    

What It’s Like

From the weekly discussion group meetings and the one-on-one interviews with the girls, three key points emerged that provided a snapshot of black girls’ experiences in their independent schools as well as the methods through which schools can support them.
Examining identity. For black girls in independent schools, the pressure to fit in to an elite predominantly white space also requires a particular navigation of one’s identity and the consistent reinforcement of self-definition in the face of being defined by others’ norms and expectations. Identity mapping can lead to opportunities for peers to see ways they are similar and different and to feel a sense of community. Some girls shared physical characteristics, interests, and personality traits. Others focused on who they were in relation to others—daughters, sisters, friends, and teammates.
Jacobs then brought in different forms of media for the girls to reflect on and analyze, such as the mini-documentary A Girl Like Me, in which a 16-year-old girl of color conducts interviews with other teenage girls of color about their personal experiences with standards of beauty, friendships, and relationships through the lenses of race and gender. In response to the video, the girls discussed how they appreciated learning about others with experiences similar to their own and the importance of a girl their own age who was creating media to tell her story.
Awareness and storytelling. In the hectic schedule of school life, the opportunity for students to pause and reflect on their experiences within their school, particularly across grade levels, is limited. One girl suggested the weekly meetings were a place for mental and emotional release and affirmation. The level of comfort and support in the group contributed to the girls’ growing sense of agency, and they began to bring in their own forms of media—videos about dating, spoken word poetry, and news clips about current events. They became each other’s teachers, educating one another on how they navigated their school spaces as well as the broader society as black girls.
The girls shared experiences in which they felt they’d been viewed by white students and teachers as only being capable in athletics and not in academics, when they noticed that they were treated differently than their white peers in cases of discipline, and the fact that often learning about black people in the curriculum was limited to discussions of American slavery or the civil rights movement.
The need for safe spaces for critique and action. One group of girls led a professional development session for a group of teachers at their school titled “A Day in the Life.” It included examples of daily microaggressions the girls had experienced and a list of concrete actions for how the teachers could be allies to black female students.
The girls saw the group as a place where they could lay their experiences on the table as data on where the work needed to be done to create change in their community and influence the school environment so that “the struggles that I go through now … future black girls don’t have to endure the same.”

What’s Next

As a follow-up to this study, Jacobs is currently conducting a study exploring the experiences of girls of color in all-girls schools. By conducting focus groups with adolescent girls of color, parents/caregivers, teachers, and administrators in four all-girls schools in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic regions of the US, Jacobs plans to further the conversation of how independent schools can continue to support the academic, social, and emotional needs of girls of color. 


Charlotte E. Jacobs

Charlotte E. Jacobs is an adjunct assistant professor and the co-director for the Independent School Teaching Residency program at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.

Ramona Weber

Ramona Weber is a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.