In spring 2020, COVID-19 closed 118,238 schools out of a total of 123,774 schools in the United States, according to MCH Strategic Data. That is 97.61 percent of the entire K–12 population of 57.8 million students. It is no secret that millions of students were displaced from their educational setting. Leaders have a responsibility to address the needs of all learners in these challenging circumstances, particularly those associated with Black male students. Two studies—“CDC Hospital Data Point to Racial Disparity in COVID-19 Cases” by Allison Aubrey and Joe Neel and “Month of Corona-virus in New York City: See the Hardest-Hit Areas” by Larry Buchanan, Jugal Patel, Brian Rosenthal, and Anjali Singhvi—have shown that the COVID-19 virus is hitting disadvantaged Black and brown communities at a higher rate than others. Disparities and inequities cause African American families to be disproportionately impacted by this virus, more highly than any other population in the country. As educators, we are now implementing practices through a new learning platform: distance learning. While times are uncertain, the concern is even greater when it comes to formal learning for all students. One group in particular has been historically disadvantaged academically. Black male students have the lowest graduation rates of any population in the country. Despite these extenuating circumstances, secondary principals continue to be held responsible for graduating all of their students. In addition to meeting the challenges associated with the pandemic, secondary principals remain tasked with addressing the preexisting complex variables related to graduating young Black men.

School leadership matters, and school principals make a difference in student achievement. Black male students have the highest referral rate to special education of any population in the country, and according to morbidity and mortality reports by the CDC, their house-holds are being impacted by COVID-19 harder than any other population in the country. The superintendent of schools from Rochester, NY, posted a picture ironically stating that he struggled to find national pandemic strategies or plans in his superintendent manual. Although his statement is humorous, there is truth in his claim. Nevertheless, additional truths are equally present. In The Six Secrets of Change, Michael Fullan discusses the importance of having a theory over a plan: “Give me a good theory over a strategic plan any day of the week. A plan is a tool—a piece of technology only as good as the mindset using it. The mindset is theory, flawed or otherwise.” He also states, “A theory is merely a way of organizing ideas that seems to make sense of the world. … Good theories travel across sectors of public and private organizations, and they apply to geographical and cultural situations.”

Through this pandemic, to ensure that our most disadvantaged groups at the secondary level have any hope of graduating from high school, school leaders must operate from a theoretical perspective. This theory of culturally proficient leadership has proven successful in guiding Black male students toward graduation.

Putting Connection Before Learning

Research indicates that secondary school principals are second only to teachers when it comes to increasing student achievement. Black male students need to feel connected to their schools, believe they have relationships with the adults within the school, and know that their school cares about them. Secondary principals need to create an environment in which Black male learners feel connected. Here’s how:

1. Initiate wellness calls, during which the principal or a designee calls Black male students to ensure that they are mentally and physically OK.

2. Create a weekly online mentoring group that includes focused, specific topics and guest speakers.

3. Conduct online weekly or daily readings to Black male students through social media platforms.

4. Create an every Friday event of raffles through Facebook or Instagram. Ask educational questions, school history questions, or school spirit questions, then mail the reward to whoever wins.

5. Hold online tutoring sessions, pep rallies, and book club meetings.

6. Send personal letters, with the school logo to young Black male students, so they know educators are thinking about them.

7. Provide students with school signs for their front yards that show school spirit.

8. Try social distancing home visits, especially if the student is not responsive to other outreach connections.

Secondary principals show they care and value diversity when they make a concerted effort to reach out to male students of color. One principal—who remained anonymous for the study—demonstrated her understanding in a recently published dissertation by saying, “They know that when they come here, the adults here care about them. It is important that you build relationships between adults [and] between students and adults,” she noted. “It doesn’t apply only to the boys—it’s all students. We focus largely on building relationships, and I think that makes a huge difference in how our students perform.” Successful principals understand that for Black male students to graduate, they must get to a teen’s heart and mind and help them address their challenging circumstances.

Social distancing does not need to prevent us from building relationships with our students and making them feel loved. All of these opportunities can be accomplished on social media outlets to make students feel valued. Many students are incredibly astute regarding social media. In this pandemic, all students, but especially Black male students, need to feel connected like never before.

In order for schools to be successful for Black male students, there must be a laser focus on graduation. Consider implementing ongoing credit reviews with school counselors and administrators to ensure that Black male students are ready to graduate from high school. This collaborative work allows principals to have an accurate representation of what’s transpiring for all of their students in their schools, at a distance.

Although these are uncertain times for all of us as a country, what is certain is that Black male students and their families are being impacted the most by COVID-19. They are among the most marginalized groups in the country, and are statistically one of the most educationally disadvantaged groups nation-wide. It is the responsibility of secondary principals to ensure that throughout these complex circumstances, all students graduate from high school on time.

Marck E. Abraham, EdD, is the president of MEA Consulting Services LLC.

Sidebar: NASSP Position Statement

NASSP Position Statement: to highlight the changing demographics of the K–12 student population and offer recommendations for policymakers and school leaders on how to create culturally responsive schools that will allow each student to succeed.

Students of color (Black, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander, or American Indian/Alaska Native) made up 47 percent of public school students nationwide in 2014, and the National Center for Education Statistics predicts this population will increase to 56 percent by 2024. In addition, 13.7 million or 19 percent of children under age 18 were in families living in poverty. Of that amount, the poverty rate was highest among Black and American Indian/Alaska Native children (34 percent for both groups), followed by Hispanic (28 percent), and white and Asian children (11 percent for both groups). Data from the CDC also indicate that 8 percent of all high school students self-report as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, and another 1.8 percent identify as transgender. It is also important to note that many students may fall under multiple subgroups.

These changes in student demographics across the nation create a need for educators who can effectively meet the needs of an ever-growing diverse student population. In essence, we need schools and classrooms to be culturally responsive—meaning they use the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, and learning styles of diverse students to make learning more engaging and effective. Many education experts have written about the characteristics of culturally responsive pedagogy, and there seems to be agreement on five key features: educators communicate high expectations, actively engage students in learning, facilitate learning, have a positive perspective on parents and families, and help students understand how the curriculum links to their everyday lives. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, culturally responsive schools can help “support historically underserved and marginalized students in coping with bias, discrimination, and negative stereotypes they too often face because of their cultural, racial, and socioeconomic identities.” While policymakers are beginning to understand the importance of culturally responsive practices and are incorporating some aspects into their state education standards, a recent survey of teaching standards by New America finds that most states “do not yet provide a description of culturally responsive teaching that is clear or comprehensive enough to support teachers in developing and strengthening their [culturally responsive teaching] practice throughout their careers.”

Sidebar: Building Ranks™ Connections

Dimension: Equity

Inspiring staff members, students, and parents to understand and resolve issues of equity. You constantly can emphasize high expectations while also demonstrating respect for all students and faculty members. You can provide teachers with training related to effort-based learning and cultural competency so that they also hold high expectations for each student. You can challenge biases if and when they are stated by members of your community and work relentlessly to address inequitable practices or structures. In particular, you should ensure that discipline policies address student misconduct in a proactive, fair, and unbiased manner.

Equity is part of the Building Culture domain of Building Ranks.