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Shifting the numbers: Men of color and education

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The statistics paint a bleak picture. In Philadelphia public schools, 51 percent of Latino and 46 percent of African American males do not graduate. The School Reform Commission’s African American and Latino Male Task Force commissioned a study to understand what factors contribute to the low achievement and dropout problems for young men of color.

The provocative January 25 panel Shifting the Numbers: Men of Color and Education, sponsored by Makuu Black Cultural Center and Teach for America, was not without its controversy. Any time you discuss issues of race, class, and education you are bound to ruffle a few feathers. The discourse is likely to get heated if you focus on central questions like: How to better educate young males of color? How to increase the number high-quality men of color standing in front of students of color?

There was not a single answer to these questions. Panelist Robert Archie, chairman of the School Reform Commission, noted that “you can’t be what you don’t see.” But panelist David Hardy, founder of Boys’ Latin Charter School, contended that “if you can dream it, you can be it.”

Also on the panel were Superintendent Arlene Ackerman; Amanda Fernandez, vice president for diversity and inclusiveness for Teach for America; and Sharif El-Mekki, principal of Mastery Charter Shoemaker Campus.

I noticed a missed opportunity: the panel was missing the true experts on this topic, young African American and Latino males.

I did appreciate the contributions from Courtney Charleston, a junior at the Wharton School, who recited a poem “Superman” that spoke to the genius of African American males. I was equally moved by the welcoming remarks from Tre Johnson, a former teacher and now TFA’s director of community and district partnerships for their mid-Atlantic region. Johnson’s stirring words paid homage to his hometown’s slogan “Trenton makes, the world takes.” He used the metaphor of “tracks” to set the context of the complexities of getting young men of color on track in education.

Most of the panelists were born either before or during the height of the civil rights era. El-Mekki emphasized that education is the “new civil rights issue.” However, the panel should have included representatives of the current class of teenage scholars or recent college graduates. The panel could have included voices of members from organizations like the Philadelphia Student Union. Or the voices of the young men who practically had to beg to ask a question during the forum.

I am sure Alexander Peay would have provided some innovative suggestions and critical insights to the panel’s central question. Peay and several other recent African American male college graduates are members of City Year who have started a social entrepreneurial organization, Rising Sons.

Rising Sons provides programs for young men in grades 7-12 to "open their eyes to what they can offer to their community, to their country, to the world."

Unfortunately, many of our schools, despite caring adults who roll up their sleeves every day, are failing to educate students of color.

Instead of the blame game or conceding to the neglect, fear, and misconceptions about African American and Latino males, we need to lift up the young men who are providing positive reinforcement.

Instead of marginalizing and viewing the culture of young men of color from a deficit perspective, we need to view their learning styles and codes as resources.

Instead of accepting that many Black and Latino boys act out because they can’t read and write on grade level, we need to take a closer look at offering more “boy friendly” books and creatiing more engaging classrooms. In short, we need to listen and honor the voices of our young African American and Latino males.

I attended racially isolated public schools. Like some of the panelists, I was able to navigate the “tracks” and join an educated class that often seems far removed from many of our students.

The part of the panel discourse that resonated with me the most was when an audience member asked Ackerman, who grew up in segregated St. Louis, if she thought that integration had hurt the African American community.

She said she thought integration has led to an increased cultural disconnect in the classroom. When Black students were bused out of their own neighborhoods to be in classrooms with White teachers who didn’t know them, Ackerman said, the teachers “didn’t understand who we are as people, didn’t value what we bring. That cultural disconnect is still here…. I walk through schools every day and see that. I see it in low expectations…. I still see people who are afraid of our children.”

As I left this timely forum, I had more questions than answers. But I think we need to continue having these tough talks.

The shift is not going to happen from one conversation.

Celeste Lavin contributed reporting to this piece.

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