ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
While middle school is hard for just about everyone, for Black students, it can be among the toughest years of their lives. In addition to the academic challenges and social awkwardness, they face harsher discipline, bias in the classroom and systemic racism. Well, for some Black students, remote learning during the pandemic has offered an escape and a chance to thrive. Elizabeth Miller of Oregon Public Broadcasting tells this story through the eyes and ears of one eighth-grader.
ELIZABETH MILLER, BYLINE: Back when school was in person, Josh Secrett was always tired.
JOSH SECRETT: I used to come home and just lay down, go to sleep for, like, hours, wake up for dinner, go to bed.
MILLER: That's Josh's mom, Sharnissa Secrett, talking in the background. Josh is in eighth grade now at Ron Russell Middle School in Portland. His mom also noticed his exhaustion at the end of the day.
SHARNISSA SECRETT: You look in my baby's eyes when he used to come home, he was mentally tired. I can't even imagine the distractions, the different interactions he was having.
MILLER: But now that school is online, Josh's mom says he's doing better. There are fewer distractions, he can work independently and he's able to focus. Plus, his mom says he doesn't have to worry about bias and systemic racism at school.
There are a lot of ways those things can show up in the classroom. They can appear in textbooks, dress codes and who gets in trouble. Nationwide, Black students are more likely to be disciplined and less likely to graduate compared with white students. In Oregon, they're also less likely to be identified as talented and gifted. All that takes a toll on kids like Josh.
VALERIE ADAMS-BASS: There is emotional energy and a cognitive energy that goes along with navigating the spaces where you don't feel welcome or comfortable or you're consistently having to defend yourself.
MILLER: Valerie Adams-Bass is a developmental psychologist who focuses on Black youth and media stereotypes. Now, let's be clear. Not every student is thriving right now. Between Internet access, mental health struggles and limited child care options, remote learning isn't working for everyone. Research shows students with disabilities, those experiencing poverty and Black and Latinx students are especially at risk of falling behind. Nevertheless, Adams-Bass says it's no surprise some Black students are doing better at home than they were at school. School can take a lot out of them.
ADAMS-BASS: You're always on alert. You're always on. You're always deflecting. So you would be exhausted at the end of the day on top of growing.
MILLER: Ever since elementary school, Josh and his parents have talked about what it's like to grow up as a Black boy. He's part of a group of students Oregon Public Broadcasting has been following since kindergarten. In fourth grade, he told us about the negative attention he got from teachers.
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JOSH: I would, like, kind of be giggling and stuff. The teacher would look at me like I'm the only target that's playing around. So she would keep her eyes on me. And then everything I would do, she would, like, come over and say, what are you doing and that.
MILLER: Fast-forward to middle school. Josh wasn't connecting with his teachers. Instead, he was putting a lot of his energy into showing them he wasn't a bad kid.
JOSH: I didn't want the teachers to think I was the problem in the classroom and, you know, what they thought of my skin color. And I just wanted to show them I was better.
SECRETT: But even that is problematic, right? Like, him thinking that. So you're not the model. And that's the stuff that we will work on, you know what I'm saying?
MILLER: Like advocating for himself when teachers or students single him out or make him feel uncomfortable. Sometimes she felt she had to take things into her own hands.
SECRETT: But I have to go and yell at a teacher or two because they're not treating him - or teach them equity or how to work with my Black son. That was my whole banner - how to work with my Black son.
MILLER: That hasn't been an issue during the pandemic.
SECRETT: And now, it's like I know what's going on with him. I can maintain the emotional. I can interact with the teachers as I need. He interacts with the teachers as he needs. So it's like almost the noise is shut out, and we can just get to the work.
JOSH: I'm more energized. I want to do more things, you know? I want to just lay down and look at the sun. There's more things to do now that I'm away and better minded.
MILLER: Of course, remote learning won't go on forever. Soon enough, Josh and his classmates will go back to school in person. Adams-Bass says there's a lot schools can do to make that experience better for all students. They could hire more teachers of color and offer bias training for current teachers. They could adopt a curriculum that reflects students' lives and give marginalized students spaces where...
ADAMS-BASS: They could talk about their experiences in school. They could talk about - and we also encourage them, how will you manage this when this kind of encounter occurs? How often do these encounters occur? What would you have said? How would you like to say it?
MILLER: Until that happens, Josh says he's happy where he is - learning at home with his family.
For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Miller in Portland.
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