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Rising Up

Experts are finding ways to address the persistent achievement gap faced by African-American males.

Two students Ron Walker encountered while working as a young teacher in Philadelphia led him to start the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color. The first, Wendell Holiday, told Walker proudly in his seventh-grade social studies class that he wanted to be president of the United States. A few weeks later, he was killed in gang fight.

The second was ninth grader Kevin Johnson, “another young man of substance, intelligent, personable.” Walker lost track of Johnson after moving to Boston in 1978 to become a principal in Cambridge. Then in 1986, a letter arrived. It was marked with a serial number from the penitentiary where Johnson was imprisoned for life without parole. The two men began a long correspondence that culminated in 2006 with Walker accepting an invitation to speak at the prison’s school graduation—Johnson worked as an assistant to the school’s principal. It was a tearful reunion, and Walker was bowled over by the speech of the school valedictorian. “He motivated me so much,” Walker says. “His words were, he had to come to the penitentiary to really understand why education is important. It was penetrating.”

When Walker got back to Massachu-setts, he secured a grant to start a “series on educating black boys” at a local college, a first step to the coalition’s creation.

Sadly, not much has changed since Walker’s tenure in Philadelphia more than 30 years ago. These days, half of young men of color ages 15 to 24 who graduate from high school will end up unemployed, incarcerated, or dead. Black males are more likely than any other group to drop out of high school. Black males are almost three times as likely as females to be expelled from school. These numbers may describe a persistent, vexing problem with roots that stretch far back into the country’s long, troubled racial history, but committed educators and academics have found effective ways to address it. They have found that affection and emotional connection at home and in school makes a difference. So does believing in the potential of African-American males—and building schools that reflect that. Doing so may also require educators to examine their own subtle biases about race, which, research shows, can have real effects on a generation’s future.

Facing Up to the Crisis
in 2007, Ronald Williams, a vice president of the College Board, read a devastating Urban League report on the state of black America that focused on the black male. Soon after, he proposed to his boss, Gaston Caperton, that the testing organization take a greater role in responding to the crisis.

Thus was born the Young Men of Color Initiative, an effort that has produced a website, reports, and seminars with the goal of “improving educational participation and increasing college completion for young men of color in the United States and increasing the national dialogue around the educational crisis facing young men of color.”

In the winter of 2010, the College Board released a report called The Educational Crisis Facing Young Men of Color. The next spring, it released two more at an event held in collaboration with Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which included a range of data and findings outlining the experiences of students of color.  (See sidebar on page 40 for statistics from these reports and other sources.)

Caring Counts
According to Ivory Toldson, a professor of psychology at Howard University, most of the data out there is framed in terms of comparisons with white males and members of other groups. “If you’re only doing between-group comparisons, you’re limited to looking at problems,” he says. “Instead, I wanted to compare high-achieving black males to middle-achieving black males to low-achieving black males and see what differentiated their experiences.”

So Toldson, the author of the Breaking Barriers series, an in-depth research study on the educational achievement of black males, studied personal and emotional factors, family factors, social and environmental factors, and school-related factors to come up with a nuanced picture of the lives of black males.

Among his findings: A father’s education had a stronger relationship with his son’s academic success than whether he was in the home or not. “It makes perfect sense,” Toldson says. “You could have a college-educated father who’s not in the home, but he can still talk to his son about filling out a financial aid application or tell him how important it is to go to college. But if you have a high school dropout in the house, you may have some cynicism toward education.

”Restricting TV use was less important to a child’s success than a parent frequently telling her child she loved him and was proud of him. “Those compassionate, caring types of behaviors were clearly stronger than any disciplinary or restrictive-type behaviors,” Toldson says.

Parents of black children were more likely to receive negative contact from schools and less likely to receive positive contact. Parents reported that “they don’t have as many opportunities to visit the school for programs and plays and things like that,” Toldson says. “They’re also less likely to get regular newsletters than parents of white children.”

He also found that black males “seemed to do best in school when they perceived their teacher as respectful, someone who treated them as a person, gave extra help when they needed it, demonstrated care, and didn’t say things that made them feel bad about themselves.”

Interestingly, few teachers felt implicated by that finding upon hearing of it, Toldson says. “Every teacher thinks that they show care and respect for students, but it can be pretty nuanced.” Kids, he says, are affected by teachers “being condescending about children’s abilities or having certain stereotypes like ‘You come from that dangerous environment’ or ‘It must be pretty hard living in gangland.’ ”

Tracked for Failure
Attitudes among teachers and administrators not only make an impression on kids, but they plant the seeds for powerful institutional biases that can take a student’s education off track almost before it’s started. Howard Stevenson, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied such interactions for a book he is writing on the subject of racial stress in schools, points to the data on black PreK expulsions as an example.

“Basically, we’re finding that black boys are acting out no more than other groups in preschool, but the preschool study suggests that despite that fact, they’re still being expelled at greater levels,” he says. “One of the suggestions in the report is, it’s the way we look at black male behavior. It’s not the behavior; it’s the perception of that behavior. The lack of skills from administrators—and even family, sometimes—leads us to look at black male behavior as if it’s more problematic, more criminal, more aggressive, and more sexual, instead of using other strategies that we think of around mental health.”

Such attitudes can form a barrier for even the most effective of teachers, Stevenson says. “Very good teachers can teach anybody, but not if you feel like you’re struggling with a certain group of kids. Where maybe you and I might say, ‘That’s just Jamal, he’s challenging you, but that doesn’t mean he’s not interested in what you’re trying to teach. There’s nothing to be afraid of.’ You don’t have to take him out of the classroom to do that.”

To improve such interactions, Steven-son has worked with black children in both public and independent schools, with the goal of getting them to better manage their stress. In one scenario, researchers play the role of teachers or policeman so students can practice how best to interact. “We’re teaching them racial literacy skills,” Stevenson says.

Juvenile justice statistics tell a similar story. For example, says Toldson, “white youth use more drugs than any other group, yet black males are the most likely to be suspended for a controlled substance at school.”

The context, according to Toldson, is what explains it. “The schools which educate the largest percentage of black kids have more security measures in place. They have more dogs going through the hallways, metal detectors, random searches. But by and large, the kids are not being suspended for having a gun, but for having marijuana. In some communities kids can do stupid experimentation and be disciplined in the home or find some way to get through that period of adolescence and go on to college. Black males are being suspended for up to ten days for the same type of behavior. It’s very difficult to come back from that and readjust to the school environment.”

Furthermore, Toldson found that schools don’t appear to believe enough in the potential of black kids to provide the higher-level courses they need to be accepted into college. Toldson himself knows how important this is: A teacher in his public high school in Louisiana fought hard to get the school to include physics in the curriculum, a requirement for being admitted to Louisiana State University, where Toldson went. “If I wouldn’t have gone to that school, or if I had gone to that school two years later, after they no longer had the course, then I never would have gotten the chance to go to LSU, and who knows what my ultimate career path would be,” Toldson says. Because of such systemic negligence, “we miss out on having a lot of other future college professors or future engineers or future lawyers and doctors.”

Recognizing Opportunities
James Comer, a professor of child psychiatry at Yale and the founder, in 1968, of the Comer School Development Program, thinks helping children to develop their identities should be schools’ primary focus.

He came to his approach early, after thinking about how his own success compared to that of three friends he grew up with who went in the opposite direction. “My mother had less than two years of any education in rural Mississippi and in Tennessee, and my father had rural Alabama education until about the sixth grade,” says Comer, who at 78 has been involved in school reform for more than 40 years. “The two of them created a family and a network of church, friends, kin, and organizations that was constructive and supportive, and they gave us many experiences that they considered educational. There were five of us kids and 13 college degrees among us.”

After studying child psychiatry and public health, Comer joined Yale’s Child Study Center and then began work on his development program, which he says has been implemented, in various degrees, in a thousand schools over the years.

Comer schools have several basic tenets: no-fault problem-solving; consensus decision-making focusing first and foremost on what is in the best interest of children; and a willingness to work toward a different solution, if needed. There are government and management teams, a parent team, and a school staff support team.

Comer started out with two of the worst-performing schools in New Haven, Connecticut, both with bad attendance and behavior—and both nearly all black—and brought them up to third- and fourth-highest-achieving in the city.

To illustrate the Comer method, he tells the story of Johnny Jones, a 10-year-old. “He was known throughout the school as the bad boy. Everybody worked to help Johnny, and he began to feel welcome and wanted and valued. Then toward Christmas he began to act up. In the old school, they would have said, ‘Oh, there’s that bad Johnny Jones again, and what do you expect us to do? You blame us? What can we do, he’s impossible.’”

But under the new system, the staff was thinking developmentally, Comer says. “They said, ‘What’s going on with him?’ So his teacher goes to his side—by that time he’s knocked over his desk—and she knelt down beside him and said, ‘Johnny, what’s the matter? What’s going on?’ And he started crying. He tells the teacher that his father is in jail. He had a pass home for Christmas, but something happened and the pass was taken away. Now he’s not coming home and that’s why he was upset.”

The key was to see that moment as an opportunity. “The teacher said, ‘Well, I can understand how you feel, but if you fight the other children that only makes matters worse. I’ll help you write a letter to your father explaining how disappointed you are and how disappointed he must be and how you look forward to his coming home, and we’ll make something to send him for Christmas.’ You have now taken the devastated child and you’ve empowered him. And the teacher becomes important in that child’s life. The teacher gains many points she can use in supporting that child’s development going forward.”

Providing a Counterbalance
“Affirmative development” and “promise over pathology” are similarly what inform the criteria of Ron Walker’s coalition in determining which schools win its annual $10,000 grants for “moving the academic needle and the affirmative development needle” for boys and young men of color.

Walker says there’s no secret formula. “At the end of the day, great schools are not an accident. We know what to do. We’re trying to help our young boys transform themselves from boys to young men to men. A lot goes into that. I had a mother and father who raised and prepared me to enter school in a very different way than many of our kids are prepared today. So when the teachers got hold of me, in many cases, there was reciprocity of reinforcement. As a leader, I can’t take any of that for granted. If it happens, we’ll celebrate it.”

David Banks, the president and CEO of the Eagle Academy Foundation, which supports a network of public schools in New York City and Newark, feels the same way. Eagle Schools educate a population of males of whom about 70 percent are growing up without fathers—about the same percentage as for black children nationwide, Banks points out.

Banks says the school doesn’t “do anything dramatic” in its curriculum other than eschewing hour-and-a-half classes and including experiential learning wherever possible in order to accommodate boys’ attention spans.

But they clearly specialize in life lessons as counters to what the children may learn on the street. For example, Banks says, the school takes children on a regular field trip to prison, so the boys get to see it firsthand. The trip right after that? College tours. “It’s not enough to just tell boys, you’ve got to show them,” Banks says. “Life decisions can take you here or they can take you there. Depending upon what you do.”

—Late Fall 2012—

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