Breaking down bias
Assistant Professor Rosemarie Allen’s research shines a light on the preschool-to-prison pipeline for students of color.
By Cara DeGette
Publish Date: November 11, 2016
Remember elementary school? Recess was the highlight of your day and a trip to the principal’s office was terrifying. What if they called your mom?!
As a child, Rosemarie Allen was in the principal’s office more often than she was in the classroom.
“I was suspended from school from the time I started kindergarten ... at least five to seven times a year,” she told Chalkbeat in March 2016. “I was expelled from three schools. It was the strangest thing because I knew instinctively I wasn’t bad and I couldn’t figure out why I kept getting in trouble.”
And she’s not alone.
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights released a study showing that black public preschool students continue to be suspended at high rates. Among the findings:
• Black preschool children are 3.6 times as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as white preschool children.
•Black boys represent 19 percent of male preschool enrollment, but 45 percent of male preschool children receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions.
• Black girls represent 20 percent of female preschool enrollment, but 54 percent of female preschool children receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions.
Today Allen is an assistant professor of early childhood education in MSU Denver’s School of Education where she works to prevent the practice of exclusionary discipline. Such practices have resulted in a disproportionate number of young children of color being suspended, including from preschool programs as early as 17 months old.
“Teachers bring certain cultural biases to the classroom that often conflict with the culture of the students,” Allen said. “My goal as a professor is to help future educators recognize those biases and to understand the implications on their teaching practices.”
Allen developed an online course as part of her doctoral internship with President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative. The course was designed to create more educational opportunities for boys and young men of color to help decrease the disproportionate suspension rate for students of color.
“The latest data shows they totally get disengaged before they even get to kindergarten,” Allen said. “Our early childhood teachers come into the system with great hearts for kids, but they may not be aware of biases they have, especially for children of color.”
Allen says it’s important to keep in mind a certain data lag in the recently released figures. With the work being done to address the disparities, she is hopeful for “great strides” when the next report is conducted in 2018.
“What we have seen around the country are states putting policies in place – including several states that have banned preschool suspensions altogether,” Allen says.
In May, the Denver Alumni Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity awarded Allen Citizen of the Year. Kappa Alpha Psi is a predominantly African-American membership fraternity that sponsors programs providing community service, social welfare and academic scholarships.
In her acceptance speech, Allen underscored the need to address racial inequities in early childhood programs.
“Did you know that our young black boys are kicked out of programs as early as 17 months old?” she asked the crowd. “And once that happens, they are on a downward trajectory. And without intervention, they are 10 times more likely to end up in a juvenile justice system.
“We must break and dismantle the preschool- to-prison pipeline.”
On June 25, Allen delivered a TEDx Talk to a crowd of 2,800 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House at the Denver Performing Arts Complex downtown. Allen called the experience “amazing, absolutely incredible.”
In a preview to the TEDx Talk, Allen was interviewed by TEDxMileHigh on ways people can improve their own cultural awareness. One way, she said, is to develop “personal, authentic relationships with people that we perceive as different from us.”
“One of the most important things we can do to become culturally competent is to be intentionally aware,” she said. “We have to be aware of our biases by facing them head on. When biased thoughts and behaviors crop up in our lives we should wonder why. ... I always say, ‘Aware is halfway there.’ Being mindful about being aware is key.”