Sultanah Corbett with her students. Photo: AAFAI
By Sabrina Holcomb
A 12-year-old Georgia student faces expulsion and criminal charges after writing “hi” on the locker room wall of her middle school. In Florida, a six-year-old is arrested and hauled away in handcuffs for having a tantrum in her classroom. In California, a 16-year-old is violently arrested for dropping cake on the lunchroom floor and failing to clean up all the crumbs to the security officer’s satisfaction.
What do these students have in common? They’re all Black girls. And their stories are just the tip of the iceberg.
Take Action ›
Advocate for positive school climate through positive discipline practices. Click here ›
Black girls nationwide are suspended from school at six times the rate of their white female peers and punished more harshly for similar behavior, according to federal data. In some school districts, the numbers are stratospheric— Black girls in New York are expelled 53 times more and suspended 10 times more than their white counterparts.
Compounding the problem, those who enter the juvenile justice system receive more severe sentences than members of any other group. Yet girls are often overlooked in the national conversation about school policies that criminalize the nonviolent behavior of children of color.
“Many of these girls have racial and sexual battle fatigue, which some express through defiant behavior,” says Sultanah Corbett, a visionary Oakland, California, educator who created an afterschool program called My Sister’s Keeper: The African American Female Achievement Initiative (AAFAI).
While advocating for positive discipline policies to help lower suspension rates (the district passed a policy last year to halt suspensions for willful defiance), Corbett has focused on providing a positive support system for Black girls. It was a natural fit for a teacher with a master’s degree in equity and social justice in education.
“Girls have unique issues that boys don’t,” Corbett explains.
While older girls may have to navigate sexual trauma, caretaking expectations, and pregnancy and parenting responsibilities, younger girls are often hung up on their outer appearance, observes Corbett. “They see themselves as not worthy enough or strong enough because they’re female.”
Together with fellow teacher Dr. Corigan Malloy, Corbett launched AFFAI’s pilot program at Martin Luther King Elementary School where Corbett is a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) teacher.
AAFAI aims to boost the self-esteem of girls of color by promoting healthy relationships and academic readiness in a nurturing learning space. The mixed curriculum employs technology, creative arts, and lessons on subjects like media literacy. Disagreements are mediated through a restorative justice “sister circle.”
“It didn’t take long to see progress,” says Corbett. “Girls are more conscious of their behavior and we’ve seen visible signs of improvement around relationships, which was one of our biggest challenges.” Despite an uptick in districtwide suspensions last year, no girls have been suspended from Corbett’s school this year or last.
AFFAI’s success has even inspired several Asian Americans and one Arab American to join the sisterhood, which now numbers roughly 75 students.” “All girls are welcome,” Corbett stresses.
Corbett has received accolades for the program from the school district and community organizations and is working on expanding AAFAI’s reach. She and Malloy have started training educators at their school to engage girls of color through a culturally responsive lens and plan to take the training districtwide.
They’re also debuting a social media blog this month where girls can share their voices. Next year, the University of California at Berkley will join AAFAI in an action research listening campaign—visiting schools throughout the district to help girls create narratives around their school experiences. The narratives will be used for the blog and to influence policy around the engagement of girls of color.
Corbett feels an urgency to provide other students with the support her girls receive. One of her star AFFAI students is an 8-year old who fought constantly in the second grade. Today, she’s a leader in her third grade classroom and an AAFAI “ambassador,” which means she shepherds other girls through the program.
“Last week, she thanked us for starting AAFAI and told us that ‘boys are not the only ones who need attention—girls do too.’ She really has become her sisters’ keeper,” says Corbett with pride.