Program tries to give black male students a foundation

Published Jan. 9, 2012

The young man in the purple shirt was a new addition to the group of black teenagers meeting at Boca Ciega High School in Pinellas County.

Wali Shabazz singled him out.

"Stand up, man," he said. "Your pants are below your butt. That's not how men dress. That's not how dignified men dress."

The young man looked sheepish and hiked his jeans up a few inches.

Shabazz kept on, scribbling on a dry-erase board at the front of the room.

His lessons weren't about equations or experiments. They were about becoming men.

Black men who stay out of detention.

Black men who graduate high school.

Black men who do well professionally and personally.

In many public schools across the nation, black males graduate at a lower rate than their peers. They're disciplined at a higher rate than their white peers. They're written off easily and early.

People are scared of them. People are scared for them.

"Our boys are continually falling off the grid, and people are acting like nothing's happening," said Shabazz, a longtime Tampa resident.

• • •

The report landed with a thud.

Just as the 2010-11 school year was starting, the Schott Foundation for Public Education released a state-by-state analysis of black male graduation rates.

It outlined some disturbing trends based on 2007-08 data: In Florida, 37 percent of black males graduated compared with 57 percent of white males. The percentage nationwide: 47 for black males versus 78 for white males.

The three lowest graduation rates for black males among 59 districts examined were all in Florida.

Pinellas was one of them. (Palm Beach and Duval were the other two.)

The nonprofit based in Massachusetts said the district's rate was 21 percent in 2008, but Pinellas school officials disputed the findings, saying the calculations were oversimplified and left some students out. The rate for black male graduations, they said, was 47.3 percent in 2008 and rose to 57.5 percent in 2009.

Still, months after the report was released politicians were still citing it. Across the bay in Tampa, Shabazz was following the headlines.

Schools, he said, have spent years trying to reach young black men by just focusing on academics and test scores.

"One area is missing," he said. "You need to have a better idea of your humanity and culture."

To start with, Shabazz surveys each student about their values and attitudes toward family, violence, black history, health and personal relationships. He asks them to agree or disagree with pointed statements like:

"It is very important for me to be in school every day."

"Whatever I do, good or bad, makes a difference in my neighborhood."

"I think the most important thing in life is getting rich"

"I would never kill a person for any reason."

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The answers remain confidential and guide his discussions.

Shabazz has been running his program, the National Trust for the Development of African-American Men, in Hillsborough County schools for several years, but his lessons are a new approach for Pinellas. The district spent $20,000 to launch a pilot project with a small group of boys at Boca Ciega and Gibbs high schools in February.

In his sessions, held twice a month at each school, Shabazz talks often of single mothers, the power of words and society's assumptions about black men. He talks about setting low expectations, selling drugs and interacting with police.

Sometimes real life provides the lesson.

Shortly after Shabazz started his program in Pinellas, police arrested a black teenager named Nicholas Lindsay, accusing him of gunning down St. Petersburg police Officer David Crawford.

A few days later, Shabazz had this advice for the young men in his class.

"If you are stopped by the police," he said, "pull over. Keep both hands on the steering wheel. No, sir. Yes, sir. No, ma'am. Yes, ma'am.

"It may be a bad experience, but get over it and move on to the next level. It's not about how you feel. It's about how you think."

At 64, Shabazz is more than four decades older than the young men in front of him. But he knows the slang they talk, the rappers they listen to.

"What about Weezy, huh men?" he asks. "Weezy's walking around here saying I am not a human being. And we say a n----- ain't s--- and showing our underwear. What's wrong with us men?"

This is Shabazz's style, raw, loud, blunt. He talks with his hands and gets in faces. He shames them for using words like "dog" and "n-----" to refer to each other.

"You are not n------, you are human beings. And don't think that good grades, grammatical English, intelligent behavior is acting white. No, it's acting like the intelligent human beings."

Time after time, Shabazz starts his sessions with the same ritual. His fingers fly fast across the dry-erase board. He scribbles two numbers: 63 and 37.

This is at the core of Shabazz's lessons.

"Sixty-three percent of the homes in the African-American community have no male head," he said. The 37, Shabazz notes, is the percentage of African-American homes with two parents.

The young men admit they've heard it before.

"It's the way he says it, that's what it is," said Imhotep Tyler, a quiet sophomore who's the baby in a family of three, his mother's only boy. She keeps on him about his grades. She warns him about falling behind like many of his peers. She has made sure he has mentors in his life.

"A lot of people look out for me," Imhotep said. "If I wouldn't have heard it from (Shabazz), I probably would have heard it from someone else. . . . He just makes it more understandable. He breaks it down."

Shabazz has had more than two decades to perfect his sermons.

In 1989, a Los Angeles Times article described his push to conquer black crime by doing what he does now: talking persuasively to young black men about self-respect and moral strength under peer pressure.

It's a subject Shabazz, a married father of 10 originally from New York, knows well.

He said as a young person, he fell in with the wrong crowd, despite his single mother's efforts to keep him on a straight path. In his 20s, Shabazz spent time in prison after trying to rob a bank.

After he got out, he ended up in Tampa in the 1980s working with the Urban League and counseling young probationers.

"There's a big quest for black men to find themselves," Shabazz said. "Very few people have addressed why the Negro is so lost. . . . That's why I rail so hard on these young men."

Shabazz didn't set out to transform the boys in his class. He didn't need to.

School officials handpicked the students for Shabazz's class at Boca Ciega. Many were on their way to being leaders long before they were tapped for the program.

Yes, the majority of them come from single-parent, female-headed households, but many have a strong support system at home and in the community.

About half of them are existing participants in 5000 Role Models, a district program aimed at male achievement. Many of them bring home A's and B's on their report cards. None of them have serious criminal records, and all of them said they have plans to go to college, go into the military or pursue careers after high school.

"Nobody in there I would say is really troubled," said David Bolden, one of the youngest in the class. He lives with his mom and younger sister in Pinellas Park. "But it's good stuff to hear, it gives you a good perspective on life."

Shabazz acknowledges that many of the young men appear to be on track.


Except the odds are still stacked against them. Except that even kids who seem to have it all together can sometimes fall through the cracks.

"Even our high achievers have to be motivated to go to the next level," said Valerie Brimm, who directs the district's Office of Strategic Partnerships.

The boys agree and say they are confronted with a world that is eager to misunderstand them.

Teachers who label them as disinterested. Old ladies who shrink from them on the sidewalk. Store clerks who follow them through the aisles. Police officers who lump them together by age, sex and skin color. Peers who ridicule them for achieving.

"I had that said to me the other day," said Antonio Clark, a junior in Shabazz's class. "A girl came up to me and said, 'You ain't black — you get good grades and stuff.' "

Clark, who is active in school clubs and at his church, walked away.

"I can speak slang. I used to hang," he said. "But I'm not acting black because I choose not to be a stereotype?"

Shabazz walked into the classroom for one of the last sessions before summer break.

"All right, men," he said. "I'm going to tell you a story."

Eyes glazed over. Shoulders slouched.

Shabazz plunged ahead.

"You know how you go to bush parks and you can see animals roaming free? Okay. They're called preserves. But they're huge in South Africa like, you know, maybe 20, 30 miles large so that elephants, the lions, the rhinoceros, all the natural animals in that environment, roam free in this preserve."

The teens listened, some leaned forward.

"So people go on safaris or, you know, they get in Jeeps and they ride around. They look at the animals in their natural environment. But about 20 years ago, there was an overabundance of elephants. So they had to kill some of the elephants, right? 'Cause there were too many of them, and then the baby ones, they put 'em on a plane and moved to another preserve. Ten years into their development, these elephants became teenagers, and they started killing the white rhinoceros.

"So they look at the elephants that were doing this and they were all young bucks. So by now, they had the technology to fly huge elephants. So they got some bull elephants. They got guys like me, elephants 45 years and older, and brought them to the preserve.

And what happened was, because the young elephants started hanging out with the old elephants, they fell in line."

Shabazz paused. His voice rose.

"Now how does that relate to the African-American experience, men, where more than 60 percent of our households don't have a father figure? Y'all ain't got no bulls, men. Y'all ain't got no bulls."

A young man in a white T-shirt and long jean shorts locked eyes with Shabazz.

He, like the other dozen or so boys next to him, rarely spoke out during Shabazz's lectures.

Except this time.

When he did, his words were quiet and seemed to echo off the concrete walls.

"We're just a bunch of young bucks hanging out with other bucks," he murmured.

Shabazz nodded.

Finally, a breakthrough.

Or is it?

It's easy to measure a student's success if you're only looking at grades. But how do you evaluate culture? How do you tell if you've changed someone's mind-set?

Brimm said the impact of Shabazz's work may not be evident this school year, or the next, or the next.

She's not concerned about that — for now.

"To change a culture, minimum it's three years," Brimm said. "We just have to keep planting seeds of success in these kids' lives. That's just as important to me as the grade increase."

Shabazz spent last summer waiting to hear if he would be welcomed back this fall. But Pinellas was in the midst of turmoil with its former superintendent.

When no word came, Shabazz secured money — he won't say how much — from a group of black businessmen in Maryland to continue the program.

He started his lessons again at Boca Ciega late this fall with an expanded group and the same message. "Y'all are our future," he said. "If we are going to have a productive future, you have to start thinking differently."

He went to the whiteboard. He listed two numbers: 63 and 37.

Kameel Stanley can be reached at or (727) 893-8643.