Investigators give Black girls power to help eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline

Black girls have been traditionally left out of education studies that examine the school-to-prison nexus, but three researchers in the Wayne State University College of Education are on a mission to change that.  

Assistant professors Amanda Miller (teacher education), Aja Reynolds (teacher education) and Erica Edwards (educational leadership and policy studies) received a $19,200 grant from Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline in Detroit (DSTOPP) for “In Search of Freedom, Equity, and Justice: Black Girls Dismantle the School-to-Prison Pipeline.”  

DSTOPP is a research-practice partnership funded by the Spencer Foundation. It is allied with the Urban Learning and Leadership Collaborative of Detroit’s Hope Village, and its coordinating team includes researchers from Wayne State University, Focus: HOPE and the University of Michigan. The project is led by Ajya Wilson and Heaven Bradley, two Black girls who recently graduated from the focal high school, University Prep Art and Design High School. 

The youth participatory action research (YPAR) project — which ran from Feb. 1, 2021, through June 30, 2022 — had several purposes. As a YPAR project, the team positioned Black girls as experts with authority and decision-making power in the research process. Second, the team explored how Black girls in high school make meaning of school policies, practices and systems by tracing these through their educational journeys. Next, they concentrated on the brilliance, perspectives, experiences, concerns, solutions, hopes and dreams of Black girls in high school to reimagine and recreate schools. Additionally, the research team provided opportunities for participants to discuss policies and practices that have been helpful or harmful to them and how they describe, imagine and/or create care and joy for themselves in school contexts. Finally, the youth researchers also asked participants to share their strategies of resistance.  

Local focal audiences included Black girls in high school, school staff and administration, Detroit community members, and local policymakers. Broadly, focal audiences included teachers, teacher educators, education researchers and state and national policymakers. 

The goal of the study was to highlight experiences and perspectives of students who are most impacted by the school-to-prison nexus: Black girls as project participants and as youth researchers. Qualitative data collection methods included group discussions (focus groups and Black Girl Care Sessions); activities focused on solidarity and trust building, self-care and Black Girl Magic; interviews; and visual methods (e.g., mapping). Data collection was led by Wilson and Bradley, and participants benefitted from the opportunity to voice their opinions about factors that influence their learning, including school experiences, policies and systems. 

“This is essential for Black girls and their families, as well as for district and school personnel who work with and support them,” said Miller. “When paired together, qualitative data collection and youth participatory action research provide a unique opportunity to learn from and contextualize the experiences of those closest to the problem — in this case, Black girls — as they identify solutions and reimagine schooling.” 

Benefits to society include dismantling the school-to-prison nexus and reconstructing educational systems for Black girls and all youth. Numerous individuals and groups — including governmental sectors, media, nonprofit organizations, private foundations and scholars — have demonstrated a commitment to reducing disparate academic and disciplinary outcomes for Black and Brown girls and women.  

Because academic and disciplinary inequities, disciplinary removal and harm, and lack of care in schools impact life outcomes — including future incarceration — identifying conditions and practices that make students and schools less vulnerable to racial and gendered academic and discipline disparities is a significant potential contribution of this study. Moreover, Black girls experience other forms of oppression including ableism, classism, homo/transphobia and linguicism. These findings can directly benefit students — including Black boys, youth of color and families in the local schools — and inform wider audiences about the importance of and strategies for eliminating inequities and other disparities in education throughout Detroit and communities in Michigan.  

The project was framed by intersectionality, as informed by Black feminist scholars. It was also grounded in the principles and processes of youth participatory action research and a humanizing stance. 

“The YPAR methodology and design of this project led by two Black girls is a unique approach to studying the school-to-prison nexus, and this research would not have been cultivated or continued to exist without them,” said Reynolds. “As a Black girl-led project, this study has the potential to inform future YPAR projects about relationship and solidarity building across team members, as well as how to cultivate a politic of care with team members and project participants as collaborators.”  

In addition, Wilson and Bradley can influence future YPAR project data collection and analysis methods, as well as how to translate project findings to community-led actions. Both girls presented on the research process, study findings and research-informed school community resource development at their senior defense. 

Miller, Reynolds and Edwards plan to publish the project’s methodological processes and study findings in peer-reviewed journals and present their research at state, national and international conferences. The team presented at the 2022 International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry Annual Conference and hopes to present at the 2023 American Educational Research Association Annual Conference. Their goal is to advance research that addresses disparities and solutions with and for Black girls from their perspectives. Researchers also hope to speak with the school district’s board members about their findings.  

Another unique aspect of the project and the grant funding is the requirement to develop a research-informed school community resource that will assist the school in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. Wilson and Bradley chose to create two school community resources: two care carts — one each for the 9th/10th and 11th/12th grade bathrooms — and an informational poster/policy brief, They discussed both when they presented to the school at their senior defenses. Plans to meet with the school and discuss how to best support them moving forward are in process. 

“Because of our work, the research team resonates with the conceptualization that there is a school-to-prison nexus instead of a school-to-prison pipeline,” said Edwards. “The harsh and exclusionary ideologies, practices and policies that move Black youth from schools to prisons are more complex, interrelated and mutually constituted than a tube or channel and are more like a web or network. Therefore, we look forward to developing tools and resources that will address challenges students and their families face at all points of the system.” 

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