Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the 2023 National Black Child Development Institute’s annual conference in Charlotte, NC. We had rich and illuminating conversations with early learning researchers, policymakers, advocates and practitioners of all ages. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.
BCDI-Atlanta recently released its State of the Black Child Report Card for Georgia, which identified several paths for immediate improvement, from supporting positive discipline to end suspensions and expulsions, to supporting the social-emotional development and mental health of Black children. As President, Dr. Bisa Batten Lewis explains, it’s all with the goal to address the group’s three key focus areas: Early care and education, literacy and family engagement.
Chris Riback: Dr. Bisa, thank you for coming to the studio.
Dr. Bisa Batten Lewis: Thank you. I’m enjoying being here already.
Chris Riback: Well, I hope it only goes up from here. It’s a lot of pressure you’re putting on me. Tell me about BCDI-Atlanta. What’s the community like?
Dr. Bisa Batten Lewis: We are the only actually affiliate in Georgia of the National Black Child Development Institute. And our community, I love that it’s so diverse because we have a lot of childcare providers, a lot of social workers, a lot of medical professionals, a lot of legislators and leaders who are part of our affiliate group. And so they’re members of the organization and/or they’re partners of the organization. So the community is amazing because people come together for the needs of Black children and families.
Chris Riback: Tell me about your three key focus areas: early care and education, literacy and family engagement. Tell me about the challenges and how you’re dealing with each one. Let’s start with early care and education.
Dr. Bisa Batten Lewis: Early care and education, our goal is to increase the diversity of early care and education, especially when it comes to leaders, and whether that mean in the boardroom or actually in leadership roles and positions, because we know that representation matters, and it’s not just about skin color, but it’s about the diversity and what you do and what you can bring in terms of information, advice, resources. So we know that diversity is key, but in Georgia specifically, we don’t have a lot of diversity, almost any, at the higher levels, if you will, especially at the state level.
We don’t have any state leaders of color, especially at the commissioner level. So it’s really important for us to breed leaders. So whatever we’re being told barrier-wise, why there aren’t diverse leaders, we are making sure that we support people in learning those skills. So we have fellowships, and we’re in a couple of programs to help early educators, anyone who’s in a child-serving program to improve their skills. Leadership-wise, educationally we’re helping them earn their credentials, and we’re coaching them through earning their first credentials and providing stipends and just so much to support.
And we’re also helping them to get on boards, develop a leadership profile and an advocacy profile so that they will know how to advocate for the needs of their community.
Chris Riback: And is that the early childhood education fellowship that you were just describing?
Dr. Bisa Batten Lewis: Yes.
Chris Riback: Or is that something else?
Dr. Bisa Batten Lewis: Yes. It’s called Expand ECE, Expand Early Care and Education. Yes.
Chris Riback: Tell me about the two other focus areas, literacy and family engagement.
Dr. Bisa Batten Lewis: Our role in literacy, we want to make sure that books are diverse as well, that children get to see. But it’s not just about the diversity of books. The big goal is to improve and increase the literacy skills. Our children not starting school ready to learn, the third grade reading scores are not where they should be. And we want to improve that. Third grade reading scores, unfortunately are connected to the prison rates.
Chris Riback: Connected to so much-
Dr. Bisa Batten Lewis: And we want to-
Chris Riback: … later on.
Dr. Bisa Batten Lewis: So much.
Chris Riback: All the data’s there.
Dr. Bisa Batten Lewis: Yes. So we want to get in there early and encourage children to read books. And we do that by allowing them to see themselves on the cover and in the books.
Chris Riback: You recently released the State of the Black Child Report Card for Georgia, and I took a look at it. Parts of that were tough to read. You have some challenges.
One of the recommendations was that you support positive discipline and an end to suspensions and expulsions. And I’ve read and talked with leaders like you about this topic, and one of the statistics that you cited from ProPublica: “While Black children comprise 37% of Georgia’s public schools, Black students are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended as white students.” Any student getting suspended like that hits at the heart, but it does happen more often with Black students. And I believe, you correct me if I’m wrong, Black boys in particular.
Dr. Bisa Batten Lewis: Oh, definitely Black boys, yes.
Chris Riback: What’s the why? And perhaps most challengingly, what can be done?
Dr. Bisa Batten Lewis: Yes. The why mainly is people don’t really know how to work with Black children and the challenges that they faced. Since COVID, everyone at this point, no matter where you are culturally or race-wise, you’ve experienced some type of trauma due to COVID-19, right? We were in our houses for a year. But Black children and families are often born in trauma, having experienced trauma. And so educationally, educators don’t always know what to do because the behaviors and the needs are not being met. They don’t know necessarily what to do. And it’s worse now because… I’ve heard the teachers call them COVID babies. That since COVID, they have far more children in their classroom with special needs, especially autism, and some have not been diagnosed.
So part of it is culturally and the challenges that the families face. And if you have a middle class teacher from a two-parent home, and then add the cultural piece to it that they have never experienced what you’ve experienced, they don’t know what to do other than suspend you or expel you from school.
Chris Riback: Is there an education opportunity there?
Dr. Bisa Batten Lewis: It’s definitely an education opportunity there. NBCDI started delivering on the promise. And so through delivering on the promise, that initiative, we were able to get legislation. I’ll say we passed the Senate, and then we pulled back, and we’re repurposing it because we didn’t want to cause some of the other previous legislation a problem. So now we’re working together to revise the legislation to provide wraparound services in schools. Before you can suspend a child, you have to provide them some type of services. So that’s what we’re working on now is legislation to support the educators.
Chris Riback: That’s a terrific idea. Maybe a step between a situation that could be taken in the wrong… Put some opportunity between that situation and the suspension. That doesn’t necessarily have to occur.
Dr. Bisa Batten Lewis: What can we do? Yes.
Chris Riback: What can we do? One other recommendation that you had that I wanted to ask you about: support social-emotional development and mental health of Black children. I’m hearing so much focus on this in Atlanta, but other communities that I’m getting to talk with. Has the problem gotten worse, or is the main problem a lack of historical focus on the issue?
Dr. Bisa Batten Lewis: It’s a little bit of both, but it’s definitely has gotten worse, especially since COVID. And the social-emotional piece is more proactive versus reactive. When we talk about suspension and expulsions, we’re being reactive. But if we support their social and emotional development early on, then we’re helping the child to know how to deal with their own emotions.
When you’re upset, it’s okay to be angry, but how do I handle my anger versus acting it out on someone else? So helping the children and helping the adults in their lives to help the children to know what to do when they have those feelings. Especially Black boys are often called aggressive, but also Black boys are adultified. There’s an adultification of Black boys, so they have all these duties they have to do, and they’re only five.
So there are so many reasons why social emotionally, they’re having the feelings and the actions, the behaviors that we’re seeing at home and at school. And so supporting and being proactive versus reactive with the social-emotional learning and development, professional development, that’s going to help everyone to know how to deal with children and support them in helping themselves.
Chris Riback: What a great message that is. Proactive and reactive.
Dr. Bisa Batten Lewis: Yes.
Chris Riback: You have your work cut out for you.
Dr. Bisa Batten Lewis: Yes, we do.
Chris Riback: Dr. Bisa, thank you for coming by the studio.
Dr. Bisa Batten Lewis: Thank you. I enjoyed it. Great conversation.