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How Districts Can Seek to Bolster African-American Boys

Last Friday afternoon, President Barack Obama surprised the nation with an expansion on his remarks about the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case that covered personal, historical, and political ground. One of the president's thoughts about how to move forward from a case that spurred contentious conversations about race was that we, as a society, should focus more on "bolstering and reinforcing" African-American boys and helping them find paths to success.

Schools play a clear role in that project. In the education world, there is a sense that perhaps the president's remarks and the national interest in this particular young black man might galvanize a conversation about how to alter some of the troubling patterns and statistics—dropout rates, discipline rates, test scores, likelihood of being in underresourced schools—involving young African-American men in school.

Cassie Schwerner, the senior vice president for programs at the Schott Foundation for Public Education, which made advocating for African-American boys a priority in 2008, said, "I think it's an important moment for us to look at that question at school-district level and policy level—this moment in our national history provides that urgency."

Here are Obama's remarks on the topic:

... We need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African-American boys? ... There are a lot of kids out there who need help who are getting a lot of negative reinforcement. And is there more that we can do to give them the sense that their country cares about them and values them and is willing to invest in them?

You know, I'm not naive about the prospects of some brand-new federal program. I'm not sure that that's what we're talking about here. But I do recognize that, as president, I've got some convening power.

And there are a lot of good programs that are being done across the country on this front. And for us to be able to gather together business leaders and local elected officials and clergy and celebrities and athletes and figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African-American men feel that they're a full part of this society and ... that they've got pathways and avenues to succeed—you know, I think that would be a pretty good outcome from what was obviously a tragic situation. And we're going to spend some time working on that and thinking about that.

The Schott Foundation's Schwerner said that the national spotlight is long overdue. "We've been issuing reports for over a decade, and it's not really gotten much better," she said.

The most recent version of its biannual report on African-American boys, the The Urgency of Now, focuses on push out—high discipline rates that lead many African-American boys to leave the public school system—and lock out, which means that often low-income students and students of color don't have the same opportunities as their higher-income or majority peers, she said.

"It's a very complicated issue," she began, and then corrected herself: "Actually, it's not very complicated. I think we haven't, as a country, figured out the correct policy levers to make real systemic change in districts that have large numbers of black and Latino boys, and this is increasingly true of black and Latina females as well."

She said that the Schott Foundation is advocating for, among other things, local- and state-level action to help identify and help at-risk students early, to change subjective and punitive discipline policies, and to make sure students who are more than a grade level behind are receiving holistic, personalized supports that address social-emotional and health needs as well as academic challenges.

"We've spent a lot of time as a nation talking about standards-based education," she said. "Those reforms we've put in place, by and large, haven't worked. We need to think about supports-based education."

Schwerner pointed me to a number of districts and states that are focusing on this work. North Carolina's Personalized Education Plans have many of the features Schott advocates for, Schwerner said, but have not been fully implemented. Community schools, which focus on addressing economic, family, medical, and emotional issues, are another promising model, she said.

Call Me MISTER, a program based at Clemson University, in Clemson, S.C., focuses on bringing more African-American males into teaching. Minorities in general, and Latino and African-American men in particular, make up disproportionately small portion of the nation's teaching force nationwide. (My colleague Steve Sawchuk reported that, while 40 percent of the nation's students are not white, only 17 percent of teachers are not.)

Shwerner said it was important to note, as Obama did, that much of this work is driven at the grassroots level. Padres & Jóvenes Unidos in Denver, for instance, helped bring about changes in the school district's discipline policy. And the Coalition for Education Justice helped make sure that middle schools serving low-income students in Brooklyn had necessary science equipment.

A report released last fall by the Council of the Great City Schools called "A Call to Action: Providing Solutions for Black Male Achievement" cited the Trayvon Martin case for bringing attention to the "precarious plight of African-American males."

The organization held a summit on African-American boys' education last fall, and the issue was spotlighted at the organization's annual conference in Indianapolis. This report from the CGCS highlights relevant work in districts around the country.

Some major district news events from this year have involved the future of many African-American boys: For instance, in Chicago, Philadelphia, and elsewhere, advocates have argued that massive school closings and budget cuts will have a disparate impact on African-American students.

It will be interesting to see if and how the President uses his "convening power" to address this more specifically, and whether this speech will catalyze any policy changes or new organizations.

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