According to an extensive report released today by the National Women's Law Center (NWLC), teenage girls face a number of barriers to getting a quality education. The survey, titled Let Her Learn: Stopping School Pushout, aims to take a closer look at what girls with varying identities and experiences face in school on a daily basis.
More than 1,000 girls ages 14-18 across the country participated anonymously in an online survey in January. Additionally, researchers hosted six focus groups in Chicago, Atlanta, and Washington, DC. The series of reports resulting from this data ultimately focused on challenges facing: girls who have suffered harassment and sexual violence; girls who are pregnant and parenting; girls of color; girls involved in the juvenile justice system; girls in foster care; girls who have experienced homelessness; girls with disabilities; and LGBTQ girls.
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"There's an assumption that girls are doing just fine at school and there's no need to worry about them," said Neena Chaudhry, NWLC Director of Education, during a press teleconference this morning. "But in our research, we heard from many girls whose experience challenge that assumption. They say no one asks them how they're doing or what's going on in their lives. So we decided to ask them."
In short, many of the findings were alarming. For example, being called a racial slur was a common experience for girls of color: Between 32 and 46 percent of black, Latina, Asian/Pacific Islander or Native American girls say they have had this experience, compared to 13 percent of white girls. Furthermore, more than half of Latina girls worried about a family member or friend being deported, while one in five LGTBQ girls said they'd been bullied and or harassed because they identify as a girl. And girls with disabilities (8.4 percent) were more likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions, compared to girls without disabilities (2.8 percent).
The report also sheds light on the reality of growing up in the foster care system. Chaudhry shared this account of a girl who grew up in the system: "She told me, 'I entered the foster care system at age 2. By the time I turned 18, I had been shuttled between 45 different families and transferred to 23 different schools. I was constantly moving into strangers' homes and into new schools where I never felt I belonged. Every day I struggled to concentrate in school and catch up. I felt lost.'"
Additionally, almost one in three girls reported experiencing sexual assault or violence, with LGTBQ girls reporting even higher rates. "Imagine a classroom of 20 girls," Chaudhry said. "Based on our survey findings, six girls would have been touched, kissed, groped or forced to endure a sexual act against their will. And two would have been homeless."
Every girl can succeed if only we let her learn
According to the study's authors, the impact of these experiences can be long-term, including pushing girls out of school altogether. "These traumatic experiences not only affect girls' mental and physical health, but also their ability to concentrate, feel safe, and stay and do well in school," they write. "And if girls do not graduate, they pay a high price. Compared to boys, girls who do not graduate from high school are more likely to be unemployed, to earn low wages if they have jobs, and to depend on public support programs to take care of themselves and their families."
Chaudhry said these findings are relevant now more than ever. "We're at a political moment where there's uncertainty about the direction of public education and a deep concern about the federal government's commitment to protecting the civil rights of students," she said. "To make matters worse, many education programs that support students are on the chopping block."
Despite the challenges facing them, the girls who participated in the NWLC study remained optimistic: Eighty percent felt like they had a bright future ahead of them, and most said they were somewhat or very interested in pursuing a college education. They also were willing to point out some ways their schools could help them succeed, such as offering help on college applications, creating individualized graduation plans and encouraging them to take STEM classes.
"Every girl can succeed if only we let her learn," Chaudhry said.