Bill Maxwell

A nightmarish education picture for black males

A sound formal education is the surest way to succeed in America's increasingly tough, knowledge-based economy.

"Yes We Can: The Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males 2010" indicates that based on the nation's overall 2007-08 high school graduation rate, a disproportionate number of black males is doomed to failure. The graduation rate for black males was a puny 47 percent, well below the 78 percent for white males.

"The rate at which black males are being pushed out of school and into the pipeline to prison far exceeds the rate at which they are graduating and reaching high levels of academic achievement," said John H. Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education. "A deliberate, intense focus is needed to disrupt and redirect the current educational trajectory for black males."

The grim national statistics, including some in my home state of Florida, should force blacks to rethink their relationship to education.

The five worst performing districts with black male student enrollment exceeding 40,000 are New York City (28 percent graduation rate); Philadelphia (28 percent); Detroit (27 percent); Broward County (39 percent); and Miami-Dade County (27 percent). The districts with the lowest graduation rates for black male students are Pinellas County (21 percent); Palm Beach County (22 percent); Duval County (23 percent); Charleston County, S.C. (24 percent); and Buffalo, N.Y., (25 percent).

Although accurately calculating graduation rates is tricky because we do not have a uniform system among the states, the findings should be a warning for U.S. public educators. That part is obvious. Less obvious is that solutions to the graduation problem will not come from theorists and officials in state capitals but from the hands-on efforts of those in the trenches: principals, teachers, community leaders and, of course, parents. After all, parents are their children's first and primary teachers.

"Taken together, the numbers in the Schott report form a nightmarish picture, one that is all the more frightening for being both true and long-standing," said Geoffrey Canada, president and CEO of the Harlem Children's Zone, who provided the foreword in the report. "These boys are failing, but I believe that it is the responsibility of the adults around them to turn these trajectories around. All of us must ensure that we level the playing field for the hundreds of thousands of children who are at risk of continuing the cycle of generational poverty. The key to success is education."

Here in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, failure has become a reality for too many black students, especially males at Gibbs High in St. Petersburg and Middleton High in Tampa, both with black traditions. Because of low scores on standardized tests and low graduation rates, among other problems, these schools have earned the grade of F and D, respectively, and have been placed in a status known as "intervene" — the toughest state oversight for a public school.

The few teachers I spoke with were defensive and bemoaned the fact that their schools qualified for "intervene" by only a few points and that the state did not take into account their hard work and improvement. I agreed but pointed out that the state's grading system is fixed.

I was more disappointed with the reactions of black parents and black community leaders I spoke with. All blamed the "system" for the problems. The parents were particularly critical of white teachers who do not "understand" their children and who ignore the complexities of black culture. Doubtless, many teachers are unfamiliar with a lot of black cultural nuances, but too many black parents do not prepare their children for the special culture of the classroom, where maximum learning follows appropriate behavior, keen interest, respectfulness and self-motivation.

Even if Pinellas and Hillsborough school officials pour more resources into the schools in an effort to help more black males graduate, change won't come until blacks adopt an esprit de corps that values high school graduation. If not, the dismal graduation rates will continue, and black males will fall further behind in our knowledge-based society.

Correction: Middleton High School in Tampa has a D grade in the state's grading system. A Bill Maxwell column on Sunday listed an incorrect grade. This version of the column has been updated.

A nightmarish education picture for black males 08/27/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 30, 2010 7:06pm]

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