DC Teachers Standing in the Gap

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By: Tená V. Baker, Freelance Journalist

“They just want more” is the notion that binds together two formal educators in the Washington, D.C. area as they strive to empower African American students to succeed. Morgan Cruise is an 11th and 12th grade English Language Arts teacher with an 8-year career in the DC and Virginia area. Throughout her career, she has infused culturally competent stories and resources into the current public school curriculum- finding it to be more relatable to her majority Black students. In a neighboring DC quadrant, Dodah Yirusha has been a special education teacher for 33 years and throughout that time has taught students from Pre-K to 12th grade with a focus on World and U.S. History. Yet, with these different breadths of experience, both have seen that once their students of differing intellectual acumen are able to relate to the content by culture and by experience, they more easily connect to the material and produce at higher rates. 

The disparity of academic achievement among African American students has been studied extensively since the 1960s. Coined the “achievement gap”, statistics have shown a deficit in achievement in comparison to their White counterparts. Educators and researchers alike have grappled with the research for decades to find correction. As we have learned more about the achievement gap and the obstacles that create it, it has been retitled by many as the “opportunity gap”. Meant to highlight circumstances such as socioeconomic status, class, and lack of school and financial resources creating the divide as opposed to intellectual capability. 

Specifically, in Washington, D.C this divide has presented itself in males of color. In 2015 Black and Hispanic boys made up 43% of the student enrollment, yet their test scores and graduation rates continually trailed in performance. With this data, Former D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson and Mayor Muriel Bowser put in place a $20 million budget for support programs to counter the gap. Yet, from 2015 to 2019 the overall performance growth of the public school system has been questionable. The D.C. policy center reports between the school year of 2014-2015 and 2018-2019 the gap has closed by only 5% in English Language Arts for Black students compared to white students and has widened by 5% in Math. Overall, the policy center reports “achievement gaps persist of at least 48 percentage points between the highest-scoring group (white students) and other groups on the PARCC state assessment.”

While the monetary aid has not provided the expected closure in the gap, teachers have seen progress in their students beyond the test scores. For Yirusha and Cruise, positive results are evident in classrooms as the teachers take it upon themselves to infuse a more culturally competent curriculum.  

Donda Yirusha has brought history alive in her classroom for 33 years. At times feeling resistance from school officials and other times encouraged to infuse the curriculum with Black figures. She recalls teaching her students about the Olmec civilization. “You should have seen the faces of my high school students when I taught world history and we talked about North America and South America. So, you open the [textbook] page and it shows you a picture of the colossal head which is the Olmec civilization, but it doesn’t reference the fact that they’re Black.” The students didn’t initially make the connection so Yirusha connected the dots for them by having them compare the resemblance of the colossal head to the facial features of Hall of Fame hip hop rapper Biggie Smalls. She saw the connection happen for the students in her classroom and word spread throughout the school. Students not enrolled in her class began to come to soak up the knowledge. “We infused us in that history because that’s where we are. We’ve been all over the world. We’ve been a part of that.” 

Donda Yirusha. Credit to Yirusha for the photo.

Yirusha also works at an aftercare program for 5th and 6th grade students. She begins each day reading a short story about Black figures sometimes covering headlined names such as Colin Kaepernick and Trayvon Martin.  They soak up the knowledge and go home telling their parents what they have learned. Yirusha admits, “I didn’t realize how much I loved history until I started learning my own history” and that is what she wants her students to capture. “My goal is for them to be advocates for themselves and others so we can stop this generational curse of not knowing who we are”.

While teachers are bridging the gap, the DCPS curriculum still needs to be brought up to speed. “We have the English Cannon which mostly focuses on white male authors for 9th-12th grade and only recently have we started seeing them add more historical Black figures like Langston Hugues and Paul Roberson” Cruise addresses. “There are people who are creating the curriculum who aren’t teachers- or aren’t teaching children of color-who face trauma and adversity. Aware teachers must fill in the gap. For me personally it was finding what doesn’t bore me as a teacher because if it bores me I am not going to teach it well and finding what my students can connect with because I feel that is where real learning takes place.”

Morgan Cruise. Credit to Cruise for the photo.

In classic assignments like reading short stories to learn of annotations, Cruise found that simply providing student-identifiable stories outside of the current English Canon allowed for better connection and results. “I try to find myself in the things I read so I want to show my students that as well” she states. Generally, bored and unenthusiastic students dissected the stories and created their own 20-page stories with zeal and pride, some even finding new dreams for themselves as writers.  

Cruise has developed a strategy for her students to take language arts beyond their time in her classroom and apply it to their individual success journeys. While most students will study a Shakespearean play to gain an understanding of the nuances of literature, Cruise has opted to use Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun to push beyond the goal. At Roosevelt STAY High School where she now teaches students ranging in age from 17 to 24, Cruise uses the groundbreaking play of depicting the experience of an African American family of the 1950s to explore the American Dream and what it looks like for those of different socioeconomic, class, and racial backgrounds. Before reading the play her students are given an assignment to define their own American Dream and then develop a vision board and action plan on how to achieve such after graduation. Together they break down these concepts and then move throughout the play deciphering what each character’s American Dream is and how it shapes and determines their decisions in the play as a whole. Then tying it back to themselves and what influences each student’s American Dream. It begs the question “How do we create our own happiness” and allows them to translate what they are learning into tools they can use in the real world.  

We all grow up wanting some form of the American Dream. Yet, students step into classrooms every day where they aren’t fed or able to connect with the material. “One of the major reasons for the achievement gap is that we don’t pour into our (Black) children.  We have to form positive relationships and start affirming our children because it doesn’t happen through the curriculum” Yirusha says. Their advice to other teachers on the mission to challenge the curriculum in their classrooms is to “plan extensively and tie it to real life. It is the job of that teacher to stand in the gap.” Be flexible and present the information in multiple ways until the child is able to connect.  “Students can produce whatever you want them to produce when they really connect with something.”

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