by Kelly Amis

Img035 Twelve years ago, during the last days of a Washington, D.C. summer, I met a tiny boy who left a big impression.

I was volunteering at a day-in-the-country event for low-income D.C. kids; Malik was one of many who had climbed on a bus that morning to spend a day chasing ducks, dipping his feet in a pool and eating lunch on a vast green lawn.

Malik had just turned five. He was ridiculously cute, with a round little head and huge dark-brown eyes. We hit it off, and at the end of the day the event director asked if I would be interested in becoming Malik’s “big buddy.” A short time later, it was official. We were buddies.

For the next few years, I spent two or three Sundays a month taking Malik, and usually his two sisters, all over the city, to parks, movies, the occasional heavily-negotiated museum. I had been a teacher and tutor before becoming Malik’s “big buddy,” but this program was less about academics and more about getting kids out of their neighborhood to have some fun and new experiences.

I had never thought to visit Malik’s school or meet his teachers, and was angry with myself for not doing so when I learned that he was in a special education class at school. I only discovered this because he happened to show me his class photo: there were only five or six children in it (a regular class would have had 24 or more) and one of them had Down’s Syndrome.

I tried to hide my dismay from Malik. I knew the Washington, DC school district was notorious for over-identifying students—especially black boys—as “special ed” but it had never occurred to me that Malik might be one of them. Why was this perfectly intelligent and capable little boy in what appeared to be a special-education-only class?

Malik’s mother (who assumed the school was doing what was best for him) gave me permission to investigate and helped me set up a meeting with his teacher.

The teacher was not thrilled to see me. With a folder that was clearly Malik’s sitting on the table beside her, she told me with a straight face that she hadn’t been able to access his files. She was very sorry, but she wouldn’t be able to tell me what Malik’s disability was or when it was identified. However, I should feel confident that the school only had Malik’s best interests at heart.

As she spoke, a teacher’s aide pulled up a chair, grabbed the folder and started silently flipping through it.

Finally I got up to leave; the conversation was going nowhere. I thanked the teacher for her time while I mentally planned to contact the district’s Special Education Office. The aide then closed the file, looked up at me and said, “You're right.” Malik had never been identified with a disability.

Malik was transferred into a regular classroom the next week. The story doesn’t end there, unfortunately, but I am sharing only this first chapter as an example of how African-American boys are treated by our education system, including by being regularly and disproportionately shifted into “special ed” instead of being properly taught and held to the same expectations as their peers. (Read here and here for grim statistics.)

It was random chance that I met Malik and had enough experience working in schools to see the red flag waving from that photo. Many other black boys remain trapped by the lower expectations our system holds for them.

See how this translates to the international context with our breakdown of recent PISA reading scores: