Moving Schools from Toxic to Transformative

“We are real people living real lives . . .”

“We’re not dangerous . . .“

“All we want is for people to see us . . .

Morehouse, a historically black, all male college in Atlanta, provided a particularly appropriate setting last month for a well received and often cathartic airing of the challenges, frustrations—and supports desired—by young African American males as they navigate the frequently treacherous waters of American education. In a performing arts center named for Ray Charles, students, parents, university researchers and community leaders shared compelling— and often emotional— stories of race and education in America’s schools.

The overarching theme repeatedly heard over the two-day Black Male Summit: African American males feel disconnected, misunderstood, and inadequately supported by teachers, principals and others involved in running their schools. To thrive, the presenters repeatedly stressed, schools must become more culturally focused and responsive to the emotional, social, and academic needs of all students.

Almost 60 years since Brown vs the Board of Education ended legal segregation in public schools, the summit, sponsored by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, focused on the toxic (and still often segregated) school climates where African American males and other students of color frequently find themselves during their K-12 academic careers. Climates steeped in low expectations, uninspired teaching, and restrictive discipline practices lead too many of these young men to disengage, opt out, and eventually drop out of school in disproportionately large numbers.

Some alarming data from the Summit:

  • High Quality Instruction. Schools serving low-income and minority students have disproportionately high numbers of teachers who are inexperienced, untrained and teaching subjects for which they have little or no training. Black, Latino, American Indian and Native-Alaskan students attend schools with higher concentrations of first-year teachers at a higher rate (3 to 4 percent) than white students (1 percent). In addition, black students are more than twice as likely as other students to attend schools where large numbers of teachers are not certified. This school climate drives high rates of teacher turnover, producing instability and chaos in the instructional program.
  • Suspension of Preschool Children. African-American students represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment but 42 percent of students suspended once, and 48 percent of the students suspended more than once.
  • Retention. Across the United States, 12 percent of African-American students are held back for a year by ninth grade — about double the rate for all other students.
  • Access to Advanced Courses. African-American and Latino students represent 26 percent of the students enrolled in gifted-and-talented programs, compared to 40 percent of the overall enrollment in schools that offer these programs. Only 57 percent of African-American students and 67 percent of Latino students attend schools that offer the core group of pre-college courses (e.g., algebra, geometry, calculus, biology, chemistry, and physics) that prepare students for successful transitions to college.
  • College and Career Readiness. Schools serving high concentrations of low-income students and students of color are at far higher risk of leaving their students unprepared for work and life in an era of global competition than are their white and middle-class peers.

The Summit reminded all attendees of the importance of transforming schools into settings that encourage, embrace and reward every student.

John Wilson, Jr., president of Morehouse College, Jim Shelton, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, and David Banks, founding principal of the Eagle Academy in New York, each called for broader and more focused efforts to improve outcomes for all young men of color. “You cannot just build your own child,” stressed Banks, whose teenage son was with him on the stage. “Bring their friends along, too, so your own child is protected.”