Oakland educator’s African American girls’ initiative teaches girls of color they matter too

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.

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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.

Reader Comments

  1. The suspension of Afro-American students is alarming than the white students in America. Due to the injustices of the Afro-Americans, the schools’ superintendents should be exposed to this information so they can implement a plan to reduce this problem.

  2. By the lack of comments, clearly no one is reading this. I understand why.

    “Despite an uptick in districtwide suspensions last year, no girls have been suspended from Corbett’s school this year or last”
    REALLY??? Just a few lines ago, you said that there was a newly imposed NO SUSPENSION suspention policy! Good work Corbett and District! [sarcasm]
    And nice work Sherlock Sabrina!

    “Black girls in New York are expelled 53 times more and suspended 10 times more than their white counterparts.” I noticed NO citation for such a serious claim!!!!!

    “While older girls may have to navigate sexual trauma, caretaking expectations, and pregnancy and parenting responsibilities”
    Holy crap. That sounds like you have a MUCH BIGGER problem on your hands than searching out a “great, new, anti-bullying program.”

    1. Are you posting to the comments to vent? Obviously it is a thought process to respond with intelligence. When you are responding to a comment, the blogger is not saying, as in talking however, the blogger is stating the viewpoint.
      Because you choose to live a bubble lifestyle, citation is your only recourse in debate of statistics? I am coherent enough to know numbers can be manipulated, but they also can be researched for accuracy.
      Your thoughts are typed on the blog, and your rebuttal to the comment, shows a thought and your opinion, but I wouldn’t say your thoughts are inaccurate, because I don’t know you or your thoughts. I am aware the article is about a Teacher, an Educator who has the knowledge and the compassion to show support of the girls. What is it you do? Do you have any purpose? I am certain you have potential, however, your comments in sarcasm are grouchy and divisive.

      1. Sounding “grouchy.” Accepted. I suppose that might be a fair assessment.

        I suppose I could (or should) have posed it as…

        “Though possibly a very worthwhile program, might this program be merely treating terrible symptoms/consequences of a much bigger problem?”

        “Please provide a source for said.”

        “How much, or does the former provide a rationale for the latter (rather than attributing this new program)?”

        “Grouchy” because it is so frustrating listening to people who (oftentimes it seems) play the race/victim card (or otherwise). And a single people group making up over half of …anything seems, well ….disingenuous at best – especially without anything to back it up, i.e. a source. Just like, “NEA members are Democrats”, “Westborough Baptist is representational of Christians”, “Police officers are haters”, or “Trump supporters deserve to go to hell.” – So let’s riot and go on a killing spree. Ends up the mantra in response of late.

        You mentioned “blog.” I thought that this was an official NEA site … and promoting an agenda …yet again, i.e. a specific minority group (Blacks and girls). Is the “district” one or 10 schools? Is the school one for only girls? Is it made up of 90% Black??? These are important and often ‘convenient’ omissions employed by those with an agenda. As such, quite important, not simply my “only recourse in debate of statistics.”

        As an aside (and rationale for said), it is not only sad and frustrating, at times it is embarrassing that the NEA is much more of a POLITICAL association rather than a PROFESSIONAL one. I don’t even have a half appropriate response when questioned.

        Case in point, certainly the NEA’s political support (of candidates and measures) is VERY much is towards the left. Can this be even ‘kind of’ or ‘almost’ representational of the majority of their constituents???

        If you believe so, check out the NEA’s handbook. Then tell me that there is “not all that much” about NONeducational issues, and VERY little political ones. Then tell me how much of the association members support each “political” resolution.

        I was SICKENED seeing the holding takes of teachers awaiting disciplinary hearings – and represented by our NEA in the movie “Waiting for Superman.” Then when asked why vouchers were such a hot topic with the NEA (as many proponents have rebutted that, “The tax dollars provided for a voucher is much less than the cost to educate the student in the public setting, thus actually allowing for more money for the public schools). The official NEA response was that “It takes money away from us [via NEA dues].”

        So, seeing similar tendencies in the article, yeah. I guess I was somewhat “grouchy.”
        My apologies.

  3. I truly hope this program and any others out there that helps these girls makes its way all over the USA. Heaven knows we need them – especially after reading those reports above, and knowing they are only a spot in the sea 🙁

  4. The African American female and male both have unique issues, and they are all equally important in any plan to advance both academically and socially.

    Thank you NEA, Mrs. Sabrina Holcomb particularly, for sharing AAFAI.org’s work with Oakland’s promising students!

    I welcome those of you, who are interested in supporting STEM/STEAM inclusion, to visit the following link to learn more about how AAFAI works to expose our princesses to higher learning opportunities.


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