She wasn't looking to uncover America's secret.
When Rosa A. Smith joined the Schott Foundation for Public Education in July 2001, she simply planned to study the organization's focus: shoring up girls' academic performances across the nation.
But the numbers researchers gathered alarmed her: On average, 60 percent of black male students in the United States do not graduate from high school.
When it comes to black males more receive a GED in prison than graduate from college.
On the other coast, Mary Catherine Swanson, founder and executive director of San Diego-based Advancement Via Individual Determination program designed to increase the number of students who enroll in four-year colleges, has statistics that show upper- and middle-income families send their children to college at a 1 in 2 rate. Low-income students' odds of arriving on campus are 1 in 17. When it comes to black males specifically, more receive a GED in prison than graduate from college.
Black boys and girls have always been perceived as the forgotten, lost ones in school.
But the idea that boys as a gender now struggle is a relatively new phenomenon, says Melissa Roderick, professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. Until the early 1990s, when girls suddenly scored better than boys in eighth and 10th grades, boys were seen as the better achievers. The switch in status caught educators a bit unprepared. Carleton P. Jordan Jr., senior associate of the Education Trust in Washington, D.C., recalls sitting on committees when news of the poorer scores first trickled down.
"We educators often came out with the wrong conclusions," he admits. "Somehow it became either that we had a discipline issue or students weren't studying. It was difficult to take our eyes off that and consider that some kids--by virtue or accident of birth, race or gender--get a more rigorous work assignment curriculum than others."
No Child Left Behind's aggregated reporting, which shows specifically how minority and black students fare in school, helped rip the lid off that powder keg of denial.
"You can't have this data and not do something about it," Smith says. So she transformed herself into what she labels "Rosa Revere" to lead the cry. Recently, she gave a presentation to educators in Pinellas County, Fla., where she personalized the statistics for them: 75 percent of black males in that school district do not graduate in four years. "I looked at that audience and said, 'Why aren't you all falling into the aisles, screaming and crying? I don't get it. We cannot absorb this as a society," she emphasizes.
Yet some administrators are finished talking about it. They've turned their attention instead to addressing the reasons head on.
Behavior and Boredom
Many researchers today agree on several culprits at the root of this problem. For starters, the black male's social scene is fraught with traps that Vernon C. Polite, dean of the College of Education at Eastern Michigan University, can rattle off: single-parent mothers too busy making a living to participate in the PTA and peer pressure that fires up boys' testosterone and results in violence, incorrigible behavior, acting out, chronic truancy--all problems that force a school to impose discipline standards at the cost of academics.
Even as early as grade school, Smith has documented far too many cases of how black boys' refusal to do schoolwork or pay attention in class has relegated them to special education classes reserved for mentally and emotionally disturbed. Smith points to one young man she met while she was superintendent in Beloit, Wisc., whose chatter revealed a brilliant mind. Yet his mother had to enroll him in a new school to prevent administrators at the previous elementary school from placing him in special education based on nothing more than his high-octane, easily bored personality.
Second, as most people on the front lines battling the achievement gap insists, schools aren't handing students a curriculum with bite. Smith says every school's mission should be to ensure its students are reading at or above grade level by grade three. "I tell people, forget the self-esteem classes. Teach them to read, and then to learn to love to read, and it will take care of so many self-esteem problems," she notes.
Polite's solution to both issues sounds elementary: create an environment that centers on care and determining the need of the individual.
But even Polite admits the remedy requires a commitment of personal capital, involvement and understanding. Here's a look at the sweat equity and innovative thinking that went into changing these black boys' experiences.
A is for Academics
Nine years ago, Principal Maureen Kennedy Berg stepped into a school whose entire student population scored in the single digits on a variety of tests at the end of the year. Every one of the 220 children attending Louisa May Alcott Elementary in Cleveland qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. And 33 percent are African-American and 25 percent are disabled. Even so, Berg was embarrassed by the test results.
So she introduced a reading mastery emphasis using repetition and oral recitation, and departmentalized the teachers so that each became specialized in teaching core subjects like reading, math and science. The result is not just better trained and prepared teachers, but more individual student attention. Reading blocks, for example, allow students of different skill levels to simultaneously spend an hour working with a teacher, as opposed to receiving just 20 minutes face time with an instructor and 40 minutes of busy work while she concentrates on another skills group in her classroom.
In 2005, Louisa May Alcott students scored in the 93rd percentile on fourth-grade reading achievement, won one of three national McGraw Hill Pride of SRA awards, an NCLB Blue Ribbon School of Excellence designation and an Ohio state award, The School of Promise.
The same mindset works at KIPP DC: KEY Academy as well. This public charter middle school in Washington, D.C., accepts open enrollment, so most fifth graders arrive two years behind grade level, scoring between 30 percent and 40 percent on tests. Here black males and others attend mandatory Saturday school, sit through longer class days, and wear uniform T-shirts that say "No short cuts, no excuses." In 2004-2005, the fifth graders shot to the 90th percentile in math.
"It's crazy growth, and it's because it is a very intense culture focused on math, reading, science and social studies," says KEY Academy Executive Director Susan Schaeffler.
Jordan applauds such efforts and urges educators to demand still more from black boys by infusing the curriculum with "intellectual stretch." "We can do standards ... to make sure we're hitting the assessments," he explains. "But it's really how we think about those concepts--taking an historical read of a text, a Marxist read of a text, giving kids different ways to break it down and ask questions." Unfortunately, these kinds of questions are rarely posed outside an Advanced Placement class.
Should AP courses be reserved?
Swanson of AVID asked herself as an English teacher at San Diego's Clairemont High School in 1980 why AP courses should be reserved for students with solid academic backgrounds. To buck this system, she formed a program that allows any student to take trigonometry or chemistry or Shakespearian plays. Her motto is simple: raise expectations and provide support in the form of AVID-trained teachers to work with the underachievers. Now, 2,200 schools in 36 states use AVID to reach 115,000 students. A whopping 95 percent enroll in college, and African-Americans graduate at one-and-a-half times the national average.
At Ramona High School in Riverside, Calif., all 77 AVID seniors were accepted to four-year colleges in 2004, hardly a feat worth mentioning after the previous class of 98 AVID seniors did the same thing. Polite would be the last person surprised by this accomplishment. His research work led him to ask black males their favorite high school class - and invariably they replied, "math."
"I looked at their transcripts and they didn't take AP math. It's the weakest subject when we measure African-American boys' performance. But they insisted it was the class they really liked. So the motivation is there," he contends.
And this insistence on academic excellence reduces the possibilities for resistance and acting out, he adds.
I Love You
Just ask the black male teachers at North Lawndale College Prep Charter High School in Chicago, Ill. Despite its lofty name, administrators here faced the same terrifying, befuddling problem: 135 kids on the honor roll and 105 were girls. Boys scored almost a half a grade point below the cumulative girls' score. "To our African-American male teachers, this non-performance was a personal issue," says John Horan, dean of students. "So they asked if they could take a swing at fixing the gap."
The brainstorming resulted in an experimental strategy dubbed M2EN (Minority Men Exceeding the Norms) rolled out in January where roughly 50 boys--identified as leaders among their peers, even if that power had been used in negative ways, as founder Dennis Lacewell, the social studies department chair, puts it--were assigned to groups called houses, such as of a fraternity structure, to win points for their group through academic, leadership, service and behavior goals. Failure subtracts points so the competition is co-relational. "It's Harry Potter in the hood," Horan quips. "The main responsibilities are to support, uplift and challenge within a house, using the natural competition already present in the adolescent heart."
So the male teachers, known as elders, meet with their houses at 6:30 a.m., checking homework, tracking members' grades, and tackling additional reading and discussions. The group also took it upon themselves to raise grant money to fund field trips to Morehouse College in Atlanta, and bought prizes such as computer systems or cash to reward boys who made honor roll. Still, Horan counts the cost in human resources more so than dollars.
So far, North Lawndale has registered higher grade-point averages, better attendance, fewer disciplinary problems and an increased interest in leadership within the school among black male students. "Stop one of the kids in the hall and ask them to recite the poem Invictus. They can do it," he brags. "It appeals to the formational side as well as study skills, which make a lot of difference."
"We try to go overboard setting the examples for the young men, holding them accountable because they are bombarded by these negative images of minority men--on TV, when they walk through the neighborhood," says John Henry, a black history teacher. "We try to be in their face saying, 'Hey you can do these positive things. Look at us.' "
Yet Swanson, too, made an impact on this population even from her well-coiffed, blonde female vantage point. She drove into neighborhoods most whites labeled dangerous to talk with mothers and sons who had no idea who their father was. "I didn't understand everything about their community, but I needed to show I cared and I was there for them," she says. "Compassion doesn't mean, 'Oh I feel so sorry for you.' It's 'I will work with you and we will solve this.' "
To that end, she encourages teachers to demonstrate caring by showing interest in the black male's world-attend their sporting events and don't belittle boys' dreams of becoming the next Michael Jordan. She brought her young son to class to interact with her students. She even gave a stamp of approval to Ebonics-the controversial language among African-Americans that accepts sentences like "He be going"--as long as the students understood that grammatical English is the language of the professional world and could produce it when appropriate.
"My African-American males have always been just as successful as anybody else. Once they knew I wanted the best for them, there was no reason to resist me. A personal relationship and trust are huge," Swanson says.
But don't confuse minority boys with vending machines, Polite cautions. Knowledge does not necessarily change a person's disposition, so knowing more about the home conditions and problems a student faces doesn't mean that a boy will magically change his attitude. "By that same token, it doesn't mean because they have a certain disposition they can't learn," he says.
"This is like an automobile factory. You can't refuse to work on the line because you don't like the model coming down the belt. Teachers have to work with the students they're given each year and find the keys that will make these kids the best they can be."
Only Boys In School?
With these reasons, Smith has developed a supporting attitude toward same-sex schools. After all, the public Eagle Academy for Young Men in New York City took in anyone who applied for the first year in 2004-2005. Here boys and administrators breakfast together with conversations revolving around USA Today and New York Times articles on the table. A one-on-one mentoring program ensures that "if a boy is suspended here, you know a lot of people tried to work with you first," Smith points out.
As for accusations this revives the ghosts of segregation, she's not buying. "Prince Charles didn't go to a co-ed school! To prepare to be king, he learned his lessons with other young men," she argues. "People with financial resources make this choice every day and we don't question it." Certainly it's accepted in the Bronx, where roughly 2,000 minority parents applied to enroll their boys in this environment in only its second year of existence.
"Far too many [African and Hispanic] young men are not making it. Single-sex education may not be the answer but it is worth the try, " David Banks, the principal at Eagle Academy, told a newspaper reporter. The only downside he's discovered so far: "Without the presence of young ladies to impress, the young men revert back to their natural playfulness."
There's a good chance down the road Eagle Academy could find itself in the spotlight as the Schott Achievement Award winner for significant graduation rates among black boys - Smith's latest pilot. She's currently working with the Ohio State Department of Education to select three schools there that model good practices. "When you talk statistics, some people become overwhelmed. It's too big. We're going to show people it's possible and celebrate success and effort at the school level," she assures. "That's small enough for people to get their hands around."
Julie Sturgeon is a contributing editor.