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Five Men, Five Different Views on Educating Black Males

Black males are discovering that they don’t need to ‘hit the books’ in order to make a living, and this is the reason behind recent statistics that report that as many as half of them drop out of high school and don’t pursue a college education.

“There was a time when we were always taught that education was for us to get a good job, buy a house, raise a family — education doesn’t play the necessary role in those things any longer to young Black men,” according to poet, writer and filmmaker Malik Salaam.

Salaam was a member of a panel of five men who gave passionate, albeit divergent, views on how to make education a priority among today’s Black males during a forum convened by U.S. House Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., at the Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference last month.

During his opening statement, Johnson cited statistics from the Schott Foundation for Public Education’s December 2006 report, “A Positive Future for Black Males,” which found only 42 percent of Black males entering ninth grade will graduate. The report also found that Black students, who comprise 17 percent of public school students, make up 41 percent of special education placements, and 85 percent of these students, are boys.

The different backgrounds of each panelist shaped their perspectives on these statistics.           

 Instead of education being the foundation for economic stability, success

 in the music and entertainment businesses and the sale of illegal drugs has enabled some young Black men without high school diplomas to have nice homes and nice cars, said Salaam, a poet featured on the HBO series “Def Poetry.”

“We have to market education as something that builds the self — that builds the inner person, that builds you as a human being — and get away from the material aspect of it because they can replace that easily with hip hop music and crack cocaine,” Salaam said.

Dr. Robert M. Franklin, president of Morehouse University, recalled the community’s role in getting him to excel in school.

“The elders in my village, in my church, in my neighborhood, they paid attention to my educational achievements. They didn’t wait for graduation, they said ‘boy, you doing good,’” Franklin recalled.

“There’d be a mother in the church that would come by and slip a dollar in my hand and I’d say, ‘My God, somebody notices,’” Franklin said. “We have lost the practice of paying attention to the small achievements in Black boys lives,” he said.

Armstrong Williams, syndicated radio host of “The Right Side” agreed that not enough attention is paid to Black male students who are excelling academically. He didn’t agree that providing positive reinforcement is a responsibility to be shared by the community and argued that success is dependent on the child’s own desire to learn, fueled by parental encouragement.

“It doesn’t matter what the community does. It doesn’t matter what the church does. When that kid gets in that classroom, he or she must have the desire to learn, to have discipline, to respect authority, to understand that they are making an investment,” Williams said.

While growing up, Williams said his parents encouraged him to read newspapers and books. “The best example is not the pastor, it’s not the teacher, it’s the mother and the father who will have the most impact on that child, whether you like it or not,” he said.

Journalist V. Dion Haynes, a Washington Post education writer who contributed to the newspaper’s series “Being a Black Man,” agreed that part of the problem is a breakdown of families, yet said some blame must be placed on a breakdown of the school system.

“In some cases, kids come to school enthusiastic and ready to learn … a lot of them get turned off by education because of the teachers who don’t want to be there, because the building is falling apart, because the quality of the education they get it’s just so low they are not engaged.”

Instead of highlighting his own personal experiences with learning, the Rev. Jessie Jackson, president and founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, said the dropout rates are a civil rights issue.

There are issues relating to educational access that weren’t addressed in Brown vs. Board of Education or during the integration of schools that don’t give Black students an equal playing field, Jackson said. He citied policies that base school funding on property tax revenue, voucher programs, educational tracking that puts White students on the academic track and Black males on the athletic track, and policies that lead to greater expulsion rates among Black students.

“I can’t use me as an example for other kids to do the same,” Jackson said. “Black kids are facing structural disorder, and that’s where we do well with equal protection under the law,” Jackson said.

Rep. Johnson said he wants to use the information to develop an initiative.

“My intent is to continue the dialogue and to digest the feedback that I continue to receive,” Johnson said. “Ultimately, the discussion should result in some workable strategies that we can all utilize to address this crisis.”

–Cassie M. Chew


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