When Sandra Kalu was in high school, the majority of her teachers were white, while her classmates were mostly Black and Latino. The disparity mattered.

One incident, she says, still sticks in her mind. A teacher admitted to her class that he would cross the street any time he saw a Black or Latino man wearing a hood.

“I asked him, ‘Why are you teaching Black and Latino students if you are afraid of them?’” she says. “How can you effectively teach them?”

For much of her childhood in Washington, D.C., Kalu had Black teachers. In her neighborhood, she was surrounded by Black families. That made her high school experience all the more jarring — and the contrast gave her insight into just how much representation matters. 

Now an assistant professor in social work at Howard University, Kalu wants to help the next generation of D.C. students get a different experience as they move through the city’s public school system. Specifically, she’s focused on training more Black and Latino social workers and getting them into the city’s public schools.

With a $2.6 million grant from the U.S. Education Department, Kalu and a team of four faculty members at Howard will place 15 graduate students in 11 schools in two low-income and mostly Black and Latino areas of the city. The students at Howard are also getting specialized training to provide mental health services and trauma-informed care. 

The work comes at a critical time. Across the country, Black and Latinx students have faced severe mental health struggles since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Recent reports have shown that Black youth are at higher risk for issues like depression and anxiety and that suicide is increasing at a faster rate for Black children compared with other racial groups. That trend was similar for Latino youth last year. Researchers found that the group had the highest level of depressive symptoms compared with other racial groups. 

Those trends need to be tackled through better mental health training, experts say, and also by putting more focus on cultural competency. 

JaNeen Cross, a social work professor at Howard and one of the faculty members in the program, focuses on mental health first aid for youth and for communities of color. There is an increased trend in suicide and suicide attempts among young people, Cross said. The Howard program could help by adding well-informed social work students to schools that need it the most. And it’s important that those students come from backgrounds similar to those of the people they are helping. 

The language that students from different cultural backgrounds use to express suicide ideation may look very different from what the mainstream textbooks say it looks like, she says. 

“They’re really understanding the language and the social context.”

Shortage of social workers

A shortage of social workers in D.C.’s public schools leaves big gaps in critical supports. As of this spring, there were 95 vacancies in the school-based behavioral health program. 

That means that teachers — already underpaid and overloaded — must take on the work of infusing social and emotional skills in the classroom.

As schools returned from the pandemic, administrators saw students struggle with their academic performance, missing days of school, and getting in trouble for behavioral issues, says Bren Elliott, the chief of school improvement and support for D.C.’s public schools.

Howard graduate students like Kyaus Washington hope to step in and stop that from happening. 

Washington, who is part of the college’s social work partnership program, spent part of his first year as an intern at Maya Angelou Public Charter School in Northeast D.C. The school mostly enrolls Black students and students who were kicked out of other schools. 

“My thing was to emphasize trying to keep people in the school building and to get administrators to understand sending somebody home is not going to prevent any behaviors,” he says. “You’re just getting rid of the ‘problem’ in the moment.” 

Instead, Washington would recognize signs that a student was in crisis and bring them to his office to talk. 

What he realized was that students needed to feel comfortable to really open up and express what was going on in their lives, whether it was fights with parents, not being able to sleep, or not feeling safe going home. 

“Authenticity breeds authenticity” became his motto, he says. Being a Black 22-year-old helped bridge conversation as students felt he could relate, personally and culturally. 

“I tell my students, ‘I want you to come in here and just be yourself. You don’t need to censor what you say. You can’t change things if you’re trying to hide.’” 

One of the reasons Washington applied to only historically Black colleges and universities for his master’s program was because he wanted a Black-centered education and to work with Black educators and Black students. The field of social work is mostly white, and he worries about how that limits how well it can meet the needs of all students. As of 2022, 60% of social workers in the U.S. were white, compared with 20% who were Black and just over 12% who were Latino. 

Photo: Courtesy of Howard University

“How can you effectively dismantle everything — all the oppression, all the racism and all the things these children have been through?” he says. Beyond training, he says, it requires a shared experience.

Thinking back on her own experience in D.C. schools, Kalu says she often wonders how much more confident she and her high school classmates would have been in themselves if they had had more support and more conversations about mental health with more people who looked like them. That’s what she hopes her program can help provide.

“A lot of times people throw money and bodies into schools because there are spaces that need to be filled,” Kalu says. “But we want to be intentional about who we’re putting into the schools because the students deserve that.” 

Building confidence 

Representation also fuels belonging, Kalu says. 

She knows that from personal experience, too. Kalu only had Black teachers up until fourth grade. She went to an elementary school named after Harriet Tubman. Her neighborhood was full of Black families who lived in the same area for generations. 

“It was like a big family. We would travel together. We would celebrate together. My parents did a good job in making sure we had Black doctors and Black dentists,” she says. “I was able to see all the different possibilities of what blackness can be.”

That changed when she went to a Catholic middle school. For the first time, Kalu was in the minority. She felt pressured to straighten her naturally kinky hair, and her self-esteem took a hit. “It’s crazy how a few incidents could change a lifetime worth of positive racial identity.” 

She hopes her program can help more students experience more of what she did in her early years. “It’s my goal to create an inclusive and responsive learning environment for all of our children, but especially, Black and brown children in D.C., because I want them to feel like they belong,” Kalu says. “I want them to experience joy when they’re learning.” 

Editor’s Note: Do you know someone experiencing a mental health crisis? Here are some national resources: Crisis Response Hotline at 988. 988 Partner Toolkit. Teen Talk App. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

This story was co-published with Capital B, a Black-led, nonprofit local and national news organization reporting for Black communities across the country. Visit them at capitalbnews.org or on Twitter @CapitalBNews

Open Campus national reporter covering the intersection of race and higher education.