When Christina Foster's 12-year-old daughter was in fourth grade, she got her hair braided, a style she wore often.
One afternoon, while Foster was picking up her daughter from school, the teacher pulled her aside.
“She said, 'I recommend that you not braid your daughter's hair because she flips and plays with it in class. It's very distracting,'" Foster, a mother in Phoenix, Arizona, tells TODAY.com.
The following day, Foster's mother, who volunteered at the school, noticed a white student flipping her ponytail during class.
"She asked the teacher, 'How is she not distracting but my granddaughter is?'" says Foster. "It just didn't register to the teacher how she was viewing my child's hair differently than that of other children."
Foster viewed the incident — and similar examples that came before it — as a reason to change her daughter’s school environment.
"She is always going to have to deal with micro and macro aggressions," she says. "But if there is an opportunity to lessen that experience, then I wanted to utilize it."
Foster decided to pull her daughter out of school and enroll her in one of five Arizona-based public micro-schools operated by the Black Mothers Forum. The nonprofit organization was founded in 2016 to "break the cycle of the school-to-prison pipeline" for Black children through education, economic development and social justice, according to its website.
Micro-schools are independent, personalized learning environments that serve anywhere from five to 10 students, often with project-based or blended learning models where children can pace and master their own learning. The five schools run by the Black Mothers Forum do not charge tuition and are funded through a combination of taxpayer money, grants and donations.
The micro-school movement accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic among parents who wanted kids to experience in-person, smaller classes.
The Black Mothers Forum's micro-schools serve a total of 42 K-8 students in the Tempe and South Phoenix areas. Classes are small — student-teacher ratios are 5:1 — and are mixed-age, so younger children have role models and big kids can mentor.
Students of all races are welcome in the micro-schools, says Black Mothers Forum founder Janelle Wood. And while current teachers are people of color, Wood notes that anyone can apply for employment if they share a passion for creating safe, supportive and challenging learning environments.
When student enrollment threatens to exceed classroom sizes, a new school is opened.
"It's difficult to build relationships with students when you have 30 kids in a classroom," Ja-Queese Dightmon, the director of curriculum and programming for Black Mothers Forum's micro-schools, tells TODAY.com.
"With 10 students, you really learn their strengths, differences and preferences, including who their friends are and what really gets them excited about learning," she says. In a smaller class, she adds, teachers know which students are struggling with any given task and can provide assistance right away.
A customized approach to discipline also distinguishes Black Mothers Forum micro-schools.
Whereas many public school districts employ “zero-tolerance” and “three strikes and you’re out” policies or even use corporal punishment, micro-schools view student conduct more holistically.
Teachers, aka, “student development coaches,” are trained in the “Triple P Positive Parenting Program” — a parent-involved method that aims to prevent and combat behavioral problems among children.
"As teachers, we often only discipline the behavior we see, rather than asking, 'What's the cause?'" says Dightmon. "There is always an antecedent and if we don't find it, there are no teachable moments, restorative practices or conflict resolution. We need that to make sure children feel seen and heard."
Stopping the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’
Black Mothers Forum was launched in 2016 by Wood, a Phoenix activist whose son had been considered a "problem child" by his teachers until he was accepted into his elementary school's gifted program, where he excelled academically.
Advocating for her misunderstood son — and worrying about discrimination toward his Black peers — inspired Wood to address racial inequity in schools.
According to 2016 research published in the journal Economics of Education Review, many non-Black teachers have lower expectations for Black students than Black teachers, a bias that can form in preschool classrooms, as one Yale study found.
Assumptions based on racial stereotypes affects how Black students are treated. A 2021 study published by the American Psychological Association showed that Black students are disciplined more harshly than white students for mistakes like using a cell phone in class, cursing or violating school dress code. In response to such infractions, 26% of Black adolescents got suspended, compared with 2% of white youths.
Many of our mothers, we live with this tension every day: ‘Will our sons make it home today?’ I could speak passionately to mothers of sons because I feel it.”
Janelle Wood, FOUNDER OF BLACK MOTHERS FORUM
The suspensions turned out to have long-term consequences. The study found that two years later, Black students had lower grades and poorer perceptions of the school environment. Such factors contribute to the "school-to-prison pipeline," a system that pushes penalized kids out of school and into the criminal legal system, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Wood was haunted by stories in her community.
"One Black mother, whose daughter's teacher berated her in class, told her to log off Zoom, only to have the police knock on her door and accuse the girl of truancy," she says. "And a principal expelled a 5-year-old Black boy for (disobedience), describing him as a 'big, strong monster.'"
Wood's belief was simple: "If we stop the school-to-prison pipeline, children will get the education they deserve."
She began advocating for Black parents in school disciplinary meetings. “Of course, I was going to fight for them,” she says. “I’ve always had it in me.”
On Aug. 7, 2016, Wood invited moms of Black sons to a meeting she called the "Black Mothers Forum" to discuss their children's education. Forty moms showed up.
"We saw the era of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin — and now Tyre Nichols — and police brutality," she explains. "Many of our mothers, we live with this tension every day: 'Will my son make it home today?' I could speak passionately to mothers of sons because I feel it."
‘I go to the best school ever’
The Black Mothers Forum knew their Black children needed a safer space to learn. After hearing about micro-schools, they opened their own, starting in January 2021 with Nia Academy and Crum Academy, which they ran out of a rented office building in South Phoenix. In August of that year, micro-schools Achievement Academies Champions, Elites and Stars were in operation.
NaTyshca Pickett enrolled her 7-year-old son, Adrion, who was born with conductive hearing loss, into Nia Academy last year. He's thriving in a classroom of six students.
"When we looked at other schools, the kids with different special needs were all jumbled in a classroom together," Pickett tells TODAY.com. "We were also concerned that Adrion would miss out on so much language because of those large class sizes."
In a micro-school, Adrion can speak up or ask for clarification without fear of losing his voice. "He says, 'I go to the best school ever,'" she says.
Pickett, a former teacher, also loves her son's curriculum.
"Students can learn in depth about Black history and not just in February," she tells TODAY.com. "Unlike in traditional schools, where kids might only learn about Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman or George Washington Carver during Black History Month."
"When you walk into Adrion's classroom, you can tell it's a Black classroom," she adds. "Not just because of the pictures and quotes on the wall, but because affluent Black community members are invited into the classroom. Students see they can be anything they want to be."