Saving Black Boys

In the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, "Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments ... it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment ... it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education."

Among the many children in America who are at risk and likely to lack success in school -- most often because they lack authentic educational opportunities -- the African American male student stands alone in terms of the accumulation of negative factors affecting his future. The evidence is startling, and the sum of all these negative factors alarming.

Special Education: Black boys in 2000-2001 made up 8.6 percent of national public-school enrollments. They constituted 20 percent of those classified as mentally retarded, 21 percent of those classified as emotionally disturbed, 12 percent of those with a specific learning disability and 15 percent of those placed in special education. Twice as many black boys are in special education as black girls, a fact that rules out heredity and home environment as primary causes and highlights school factors.

Expulsions and Suspensions: Despite representing only 8.6 percent of public-school enrollments, black boys comprise 22 percent of those expelled from school and 23 percent of those suspended.

Dropouts: While between 25 percent and 30 percent of America's teenagers, including recent immigrants, fail to graduate from high school with a regular high-school diploma, the dropout rate for African American males in many metropolitan areas is 50 percent.

Graduation Rates: Nationally, 50 percent of black males (as compared with 61 percent of black females, 80 percent of white males and 86 percent of white females) receive diplomas with their high-school cohort. In some urban districts, 30 percent of black males are in special-education classes, and of the remaining 70 percent, only half or fewer receive diplomas.

Juvenile Incarceration Rates: For whites under 18, 105 out of every 100,000 are incarcerated; for black youths the rate is three times as high, 350 per 100,000. More black males receive the GED in prison than graduate from college.

Unemployment: According to the 2000 census, the percentage of black youths 16 to 19 neither employed nor in school was 24.7 percent, nearly twice the national average for this age group and six times the national unemployment rate.

As a society, we don't like to talk about the magnitude of this failure. Ted Sizer, founder of the Coalition of Essential Schools, speaking at an Educators for Social Responsibility meeting about America's most vulnerable students, asked, "Why are we so silent on these questions? ... Why is the silence so pervasive?"

Throughout America, there are in fact schools that enable African American boys to succeed. But they are isolated, and there has been no national commitment to bring high-quality education to all children. Ronald Edmonds, founder of the Effective Schools Movement, observes, "We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need to do that."

We must acknowledge this national problem and commit to the long, and likely painful, journey toward a positive future for African American boys. Though flawed in significant and improvable ways, the stated intent of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is commendable. It should be revised and fully funded to ensure success. Many educators of color support NCLB as a means -- perhaps the only current systemic means -- to ensure that black boys will not be left behind.

More fundamental even than NCLB, though, is the undisputed research about the benefits of early childhood education and what it means to the probability of success in school and life. Analyses by RAND of one preschool project after another -- including the Perry Preschool Project, Abecedarian Project and Chicago Longitudinal Study, among others -- confirm these benefits of quality early childhood education: less grade retention, less need for special education and increased high-school graduation rates. These results were especially significant for African American students, who all too often arrive at the kindergarten door with severely inadequate school readiness.

There are many examples of excellent educational outcomes for vulnerable children in general, and black boys in particular. These examples demonstrate that adequate financial resources combined with adults who hold themselves accountable for student success do produce high-level results for students most at risk of academic failure. Project GRAD (Graduation Really Achieves Dreams), which began in the Houston public schools, is now being implemented in several urban school districts. It takes a student from kindergarten through high school and ensures consistent and rigorous math, reading and behavior decision-making instruction from highly trained teachers, then rewards graduates with college scholarships.

Carlton Jenkins, principal at Linden McKinley High School in Columbus, Ohio, used Project GRAD to lead a renaissance of what was once the worst-performing high school in the district. Between 1998 and 2003, the following improvements resulted in McKinley High being nominated for the National Association of Secondary School Principals' Breaking Ranks Award:

• Enrollment increased by 25 percent;

• Graduation increased by 100 percent;

• Out of school suspensions declined by 81 percent;

• Expulsions declined by 59 percent;

• Mobility declined by 73 percent;

• The school went from meeting no state standards to meeting the reading and writing standards; and

• It went from no students in advanced-placement courses to 286 students in advanced courses.

Jenkins values the additional resources, the curricula (specific reading, math and behavior programs) and college scholarships that come with the implementation of Project GRAD, but he believes that it takes that and much more to maximize the potential of black boys. Core to the growing McKinley High success, Jenkins says, is building trusting relationships with students and those who teach and support them. According to Jenkins, developing the staff's teaching ability and fostering positive attitudes about black boys is essential, and he credits that change to the dramatic reductions in suspensions and expulsions that account for more learning opportunities. Visiting classrooms each day and attending student functions are part of Jenkins' routine to ensure that academic expectations permeate the entire school community. Jenkins is known for telling his staff and students, "Failure is not an option at LMHS!"

Another example with demonstrated results is the Institute for Student Achievement (ISA). Over its 13-year history, ISA schools have demonstrated remarkable results for African American students. In places like Roosevelt and Hempstead high schools on Long Island and Benjamin Banneker and Park East high schools in New York City, the results have been extraordinary. About 95 percent of the ISA students complete high school, and more than 85 percent were accepted to college. ISA's success record is largely due to its approach of identifying a group of ninth-grade students at risk of academic failure and becoming dropouts, then working with this group over a sustained four-year period to improve academic performance. Through specialized counseling, extended learning, parental engagement, college-preparatory activities and other supports that help students master a rigorous academic curriculum, the students respond and succeed.

Last Sept. 22, "J.," a black Roosevelt High senior, responded to the question, "If I were in charge, what would I do to ensure a positive future for black boys?" J. told an audience discussing how to improve school results for poor students, "I would never have been planning on attending college without this program ... maybe I would have gotten messed up with a bad crowd and not even graduated -- or worse. All kids need what we have at Roosevelt!"

These two highly successful examples clearly demonstrate the necessary intersection among three critical factors: qualified and motivated staff, leadership committed to improving the academic achievement for all students, and funding adequate to ensure that poor and challenged students will succeed academically at a high level. If these schools can succeed, there is no excuse for any school to fail.

Adequate financial resources continue to be a huge challenge. There are promising lawsuits on equal funding in New Jersey, Kentucky, Maryland and New York. But it will be incumbent upon local communities to actively express their intolerance for the failure and exclusion rates associated with African American male students. At a more systemic level, school districts such as the Boston, San Diego and Richmond, Va., districts have made significant academic progress for all student groups. State accountability test results show significant improvement rates for African American and Hispanic students in those districts led by stellar and determined superintendents. In Boston, for example, the black-white graduation gap has narrowed to 8 percent for African American boys, and the graduation rate for African American girls is actually higher than that for non-Hispanic white girls. The evidence thus shows that large urban systems can change course and reverse the downward spiral of school failure for students.

The promises of public education and freedom remain elusive for black boys. Slowly, positive steps are creating a cautious faith in our will to ensure that this group of students will not waste away due to the public's silence. We, the public, have choices to make about who gets to receive a quality education, who benefits from the promises of public education, who enjoys optimal freedom in America and who does not. For the sake of black boys and other vulnerable students, we must make the right choices.