I do not have solid proof, but I believe that the public school experience of my generation of black males in Jim Crow's South was far superior to that of most young African-American males in today's public schools anywhere in the nation.
My generation's experience was better, I am certain, because we had a substantial number of black male teachers as role models. I do not have hard evidence that black men as role models positively affect boys' in-school behavior or their academic achievement, but I have a lot of anecdotal evidence, some of it personal, and testimonials suggesting that black male role models during the formative years often make all the difference.
To this day, I fondly remember all of my black male teachers in every school I attended from Florida to New York. Some were godlike figures. They only had to give you "the eye" or that special nod of the head to make you "get with the program." We saw them as both teachers and learners. My buddies and I wanted to be smart like them; they looked like us; they were our neighbors; I lived within walking distance of all of their homes.
Having black male teachers in the classroom was natural to my generation of black boys. Teaching had not become a feminized domain of mostly white women. (I did not have my first white teacher until I was a freshman in college.) Now, the black male teacher is an endangered species on too many campuses.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only 2 percent of the nation's 4.8 million teachers are black men. They make up about 3 percent of teachers in Florida, with only 1 percent at the elementary school level where they are sorely needed. In Pinellas County, according to the district's human resources office, "only 1.7 percent of all instructional personnel are African-American males."
I am convinced that the shortage of black male teachers as role models is the source of many societal and school-related problems plaguing young black males. Florida, according to the Schott Foundation for Public Education, has the fifth worst graduation rate for black males in the nation, with Pinellas being among the 10 worst urban districts.
In a recent study, Pedro Noguera, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, reiterates findings that have become common knowledge in many circles: "Black males are more likely than any other group to be suspended and expelled from school. … Black males are more likely to be classified as mentally retarded or suffering from a learning disability and placed in special education and are more likely to be absent from advanced placement and honors courses.
"In contrast to most other groups where males commonly perform at higher levels in math and science related courses, the reverse is true for black males. Even class privilege and the material benefits that accompany it fail to inoculate black males from low academic performance."
The challenge is to find ways to permanently repair this crisis and find qualified black males for the classroom. The most prominent and perhaps most successful effort on the national level is Call Me Mister, established by Clemson University to recruit black men to college and to careers in teaching. It offers money for tuition at Clemson and 15 other colleges around the nation. A handful of Florida school districts, community colleges and three universities (Bethune-Cookman University, the University of North Florida and the University of Florida) have signed on.
Although Pinellas schools are not part of Call Me Mister, officials continuously try to find black male teachers, said Sandra R. Hopkins, senior human resources specialist for recruitment and retention.
"Some of our efforts to increase diversity with the district, at the high school level, include our Minority and Florida Future Educators of America Scholarships," she wrote in an e-mail message. "On the collegiate level, we have the Florida State University scholarship for minority teachers. We also have a support-to-staff teacher program, as well.
"Further efforts geared toward the recruitment of African-American educators are: forming partnerships with various historically black colleges and universities, community outreach, and placing ads in publications for minority teachers. While recruitment is important, it is also a must to increase retention efforts, as well. We have a mentor program … to support all incoming new teachers. As additional support, I personally make contact with and/or follow-up visits with all of our newly hired African-American educators to further access their needs."
School officials in most districts nationwide are earnestly trying to recruit and retain black male teachers. Unfortunately, their efforts are falling short for reasons that include low salaries, stereotypes and fear of sexual-related lawsuits.
I do not have any viable answers, but I am convinced that we black people need to start talking among ourselves about the shortage of black male teachers — a crisis that is endangering the future of our boys. I cannot think of a more important issue at this time.