Educating African American Boys

Education Next Issue Cover

Our schools deserve an “F”

By Kaleem Caire

27 Comments | Print | PDF |

Fall 2009 / Vol. 9, No. 4

portrait1In 1989, my dream of attending college on a football and track scholarship was shattered when I graduated high school with a 1.56 GPA, a ranking of 413 out of 435 students in my senior class, an 820 on the SAT, a 19 on the ACT, a dismal attendance record, and absolutely no idea about what I wanted to do with my life. Two years later, on December 24, 1991, I was sitting behind bars in the prison at Norfolk Naval Station in Virginia, awaiting notice of the numerous charges being brought against me for an altercation I had with a naval officer.

Fortunately, after spending just a few days instead of a few years in lockup, I was exonerated. Two weeks later, I met my wife, Lisa, dedicated myself to reading two books a week to improve my speaking and writing skills, changed my peer group, and moved on with my life.

In 1993 I returned home to Madison, Wisconsin, from Hampton, Virginia, having spent three years in the U.S. Navy and one year attending Hampton University. I immediately went to my old neighborhood to check in with everyone, to see my guys and the girls on the block where I’d spent so much time as an adolescent. I was shocked and dismayed to find that so many of the young men I grew up with had succumbed to the crack cocaine trade and were either addicted to it or selling it, died or were killed for it, or were in jail because of it. Most of those still around were not in the labor force, were not attending any education or training program, and expressed little optimism about their future or their value to society.

I switched my academic major at the University of Wisconsin from pre-medicine and nutritional sciences to urban education and spent the next decade working with city youth. I soon became determined to expose how unproductive our education system was at graduating students and preparing them for college. I enlisted the support of a then up-and-coming researcher named Jay Greene to help me identify a reliable formula for calculating high school graduation rates and secured the support of the organization I was then presiding over to spend $15,000 on a study.

At the time, I was concerned that “dropout” statistics were masking a much larger problem that many in government knew existed but weren’t sharing: hundreds of thousands of black and brown students nationwide were not graduating high school. That initial study and others that followed have stimulated national interest and growing financial investment in high school graduation and college-readiness initiatives. But the central problem that drove me down this road in the first place—the lack of educational and career success among young black and brown men—has garnered very little attention.

As we celebrate the election of our country’s first black president, I can’t help but ponder how very few black males are being prepared to successfully complete a college education and assume leadership roles in the fields of business, industry, government, family, and community. How will this brain drain affect the future of families and children in our country? How will this affect our economy and national interests? How many public and private prisons are we willing to pay $38,000 annually per inmate to have black men imprint license plates and pick up debris on U.S. highways?

The 2008 Schott Foundation report on high school graduation among black males found that only 19 percent of black males in Indianapolis, 20 percent in Detroit, 27 percent in Norfolk, Virginia, 29 percent in Rochester, New York, and 47 percent nationally were graduating from high school. When I read that report, I felt as if I’d been impaled by fragments from a hand grenade. I asked myself, If our school systems are producing such small numbers of graduates, what is the purpose of K—12 education for black males? Why are we allowing our children to languish in schools and school systems that produce far more failures than successes?

Kaleem Caire is the president and CEO of Next Generation Education Foundation, an organization that prepares young men to succeed in college, careers, leadership, and life.

Comment on this article
  • Kebra says:

    Are the schools really the blame? What about the influence of the family, parents, and church? Having attended inner city public high school, and currently serving in administration in the same district, I find it totally unacceptable to blame the school system for the failure of our people. Stop making excuses! I love the fact that you see the need for mentorships- and positive examples. What’s really wrong with the military? boarding schools? etc.

  • D, Miller says:

    I have come to the realization that we are not serious about educating African American males. When we examine school data, homicide reports and other information it is clear that young African American males are marginalized and forgotten about.

    If we are serious about addressing the challenges that African American males face parental involvement and community reinvestment are critical areas.

    We can no longer blame school districts and teachers for the alarming academic and social challenges that are crippling many African American males.

    At some point we need to realize the importance of grooming community based organizations to create alternative educational models to support school aged boys. To often we are waiting for governmental interventions to address the challenges that we have the power to correct.

    Finally, it is amazing that groups like NAACP, Urban League and other organizations have not made this issue a priority. How serious are we about educating our boys?

  • Jay DuVarney says:

    Thankyou for this article. I am the adoptive father of an African American son. I just dropped him off at Morehouse College and feel so proud. He is among the fortunate and I have charged him with being a leader who will not forget to reach out a hand to advance his people, his community, his country, and the world. Do not tire in the fight to educate, to promote awareness, to overcome discouragement, to change the world, and to love. We make a difference, even one young man at a time. With God’s help, unswerving persistence, and examples like you, we will change the world.

  • Daria Dillard Stone says:

    Great article Kaleem!

  • Marilyn Ruffin says:

    Since day ONE, my sons, ages 12 & 10, POSITIVELY know I won’t take ANY excuses for poor performance. Kaleem, how active/involved were your family members in education success?

  • Tina Wells says:

    i was wondering if u knew if there was a way for a for a person who actually lives in Africa, The Gambia.. who had little chance of obtaining a satisfactory education due to the war there.. to get the help need to obtain his GED….

  • luther marvin walters says:

    what he said should be a wakeup call. a huge mission field is right here in the usa. i would love to go to college and get a degree in math education/or tutor students of color. ther are not black. they are brown going all the way to charcoal brown. and i aint white but sort of a splotchy tan.

  • george says:

    That’s true even these of my country in South Africa,only few AFRICAN people make it at the high school but the more percentage they fail or dropout before the term end, maybe the course of my brother african or sister is the system of education that it is broght to us or is lack of commitement threw learning or teaching.

  • Julie Barnes says:

    I am glad that someone is finally noticing that African-American males are being left behind. I am a single parent of two boys and let me tell you, I have been very prolific and very active in both my sons’ education! I am a welfare recipient, have been for some years now, I’ve also held jobs in between. My oldest son was sent to a school that bussed kids to suburban areas and he was doing well until one teacher was trying to hold him back and I ended up putting my son in a public school which did not go well. It’s easy to always put the blame on the parents when you don’t know the kind of schooling system that you have to deal with on a daily basis. If I knew back then what I know now, my son would still be in the schooling system that buses kids to suburban areas. I had to send my youngest down south with his father, just so he can get a better education! Certain areas in America have bad public schools, let’s be real here, I myself am a graduate of public school and things that I know now, I educated myself, they are never going to teach our children what they really need to know! Especially about our black history, how many of us really know that there were black architects, scientists, technicians, engineers in so many fields of science, math, and history? These people contributed to many of what we have today. Can anybody in the black community name them? If a school that we send our children to can’t even protect them from other children who interfere with your child’s study, how can the school really be effective? My oldest son has often been bullied and teased because of his size, he’s built like a football player and other kids who see him want to challenge him all the time! How do you think this makes him feel? How can he keep his mind on his studies when no one on the school faculty will even acknowledge that something has got to be done about the bullying and teasing that goes on in schools! The real issue is you can try to defend yourself but public schools will tell you that your child will be branded the troublemaker if he/she does this! What kind of message are we sending to our kids if we tell them that you can’t fight back? It’s not so easy to ignore bullies because that gives them the green light to keep going until you fight back! Public school is just another tool to keep black people in line and to not get as far as ahead as we should be getting! The government has found that as long as we have public schooling in America, the poor will have no other choice but to send their children but to these places. It’s not going to get better, only worse as long as we the parents don’t stand and take action. I see it in the news all the time, how kids take a beating on the school playground, on the bus, and then that child is taken out of school and taught at home after that. This phenomenon has taken place almost every year, there’s an incident. As long as we don’t educate ourselves on what else is out there, we will just keep putting our kids in a system that will always eventually let them down! Public schools have one set curriculum and the government is not going to change that, regardless of what president we put into office. Parents who have children in a public school need to understand that once your child enters that building, you have no more rights on what’s being taught to your child. Public schools can teach your child anything they want, and you don’t have a say in it, no matter what the board of education may tell you. Why do you think that they make such a big deal about attendance? If you think about it, why is it such a big deal? Public schools have to have a certain percentile of attendance records, if they don’t they lose government funding! Which means that they don’t really care about the substance or content of what your child is learning, only that they are present and accounted for! That to me says everything!

  • Terry says:

    Julie Barnes hits the nail on the head in her comment. I would echo her and add that as many black folk as possible pull their kids out of public school. Can’t afford private? Neither can we which is why we have chosen homeschooling.

    Google African American homeschoolers and you will find tons of support groups (nationwide), resources, and private schools that offer cut rate tuition to homeschoolers who live in states where school registration of some sort is required to home educate.

    Outside the umbrella of black homeschoolers is a wealth of help, support, curriculum, and resources.

    Oh, and colleges love homeschoolers, too. Did you know that Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow is a homeschool graduate?

    I know its not for everyone, but it is an option.

  • karlwheatley says:

    As a white homeschooling parent and longtime early childhood (K-3) teacher educator in Cleveland, it’s important to understand how little boys and especially little black boys often get into the wrong pigeonhole early on.

    Who is usually identified as having ADHD/behavior problems/needing special education in the early years: boys, especially African-American and Hispanic boys.

    Who are the kindergarten teachers of these boys–usually white females.

    When I taught preschool and kindergarten with female co-teachers, I always found that a lot of the boys behavior that they considered problematic seemed fine/normal to me. I expected more physical activity from kids, and less sitting around quietly, and saw no problem with kids a little less able to sit still.

    So here’s the thought experiment I do with my mostly female classes. Replace all the female K-1 teachers in America tomorrow with men. The class always realizes that a lot of those behaviors that are seen as problematic by female teachers will be seen as normal by their new male teachers. Meanwhile, lots of behaviors that are more stereotypical of little girls will suddenly be seen as problematic by us men. Perhaps we’d hold back little girls for an extra year of kindergarten if they were over emotional, overly social or had any knocking-down-building deficits. We’d be worried about the kids who do sit still too much, and perhaps medicate them for Hyper-Sitting-Still-Disorder.

    There’s a subset of boys who gets unfairly labeled early on because school expectations in the early years don’t fit well the normal characteristics of so many real boys, and many real girls.

    We could help more of these boys get off to a great start if gender and cultural blinders didn’t make so many teachers unfairly label so many boys early on.

    If that doesn’t work, yes, there’s always homeschooling.

  • Peter Meyer says:

    I’m on the Board of Ed of a small district with some 30% African-American enrollment and only one (out of 200) black teacher; and we have the same problem that Mr. Caire writes about. But biggest obstacle to change is the mindset that Kebra (first comment) expresses so well: “Are the schools really the blame? What about the influence of the family, parents, and church?… I find it totally unacceptable to blame the school system for the failure of our people. Stop making excuses!” Au contraire, Ms. Kebra. Not only do we have to blame the schools, we have to tell them to quit making excuses. Read my story on the Brighter Choice charter schools in Albany, NY. (Fall 2009). They prove, beyond any doubt, that schools can make a difference.

  • Walle Amusa says:

    We live in a nation that has extreme difficulty with the discussion of race. Real advantages and disadvantages accompany the reality and discussion of race in a competitive society. Compulsive competition demands that success be measured, all too often, by the failure of others, not always by the well being of everyone in the republic.

    African Americans male uniquely find themselves locked from birth into a category of academic, social, economic and functional disadvantage. Diagnosticians, from all ethnic backgrounds address symptoms but seldom the fundamental causes of the resultant chronic academic underachievement.

    The Obama administration appears to be on the right track to the extent that the status quo of academic underachievement is a threat to the nation’s ability to effectively compete in a fast paced global economy.

    However, the administration, state departments of education, and school districts need to seek answers and shift resources to the right questions and respective culpability in perpetuating an unacceptable status quo and environment for all children to succeed.

    A new dialogue on race must emerge. A new philosophical foundation must be laid for the sustainable transformation of both public education and the performance outcomes of African American male students.

    Let the dialogue begin…

  • Dorothy says:

    What happened to the home, community and church raising our children. We as a people have gotten away from our core value system, old fashioned bible training. We are too concerned with material things.
    The schools can only do so much, it is the parents responsibility to mentor, encourage and demand that their children take advantage of their education.

  • Leslie says:

    As a single mother of an 8 year old, black male, I can say that one of my greatest concerns is having to put my child in public school because I can no longer afford the cost of private school tuition AND after school care. My son currently attends a parochial school that is probably 15% black. To cut child care costs this year (by 50%), I put him in an after school program at a daycare that is 99% black. The difference between the children is like night and day. He has never once come home from school and mentioned a problem with another student. Since August, we have had to deal with a couple of issues with students in the after school program — name calling, hitting and internet pornography. I am a firm believer that our children mirror what is going in the home and while I believe that schools should encourage good behavior and character development, it is NOT the school’s responsibility to teach it.

  • R.T. Edwards says:

    The real question is? What have we been taught, it means to be a black male, and from whose perspective? Have we forgotten the continued daily struggles we go through regardless of our claimed worldly status? We allow society to determine the fate of our boys, and then place the blame on our boys because we believe they have no direction or ambition to do well. If we look at the current economic status, which in most cases, is what we attach value too. Young brothers have carved out for themselves, economically speaking, a direction for success by an assertive nature to run this map, It may not be in line with the main stream societies view or it may have caused great detriment to the communities from which they come, but we find many of those who privately denounce them, publicly emulating them, with very few, reverting to unified strategies galvanizing synergy among us, to provide direction to them. We are the first to agree with society that our boys need to be written off, when in reality, without them there are no us. Each individual black man who claims success must research his memory bank and identify why he is successful, in that small section we call realization, you will find someone who resembles your likeness who was the driving force behind your success, bad or good. Being a black boy in America can mean dwelling in an area between opportunity and threat, feeling connected or rejected, being defined by or re-aligned by, being a Black man in America, means being responsible and accountable for each of those boys regardless of their last name or address.

  • Peter Cohee says:

    In 1965 D. P. Moynihan issued his report, “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action.” He was decried as a racist for pointing to the high rate of African-American children born out of wedlock, teen pregnancy, and single-parent (almost always the mother) household, dependent on public assistance. He was charged with “blaming the victim.” Things have not changed: 70% of African-American babies born presently are to unmarried women. If I have the figures correctly, something like 11% of adult black women between 30 and 44 are married. The rates on black teen pregnancy and multiple out-of-wedlock paternity are depressing. In 1967 M. L. King Jr gave his Massey Lectures in Canada, Conscience for Change. In one of them he extolled young black people, especially young men, for abandoning “middle-class white values,” for “dropping out of school” to engage in activism and assert their ethnic identity. He meant well but did not live to see the consequences. They are doing exactly that.

    The achievement gap is not a gap in achievement but a chasm of identity. It is an extraordinarily complex social condition that will not yield to governmental solutions and will not be resolved anytime soon. I suggest, first, that we regard students as individual young people, not as tokens or ciphers of monolithic racial-ethnic groups; and second, that we look more to the traditional power of family, friends, and religion. Government can help, of course. But the past history is that government only created more dependency on government and exacerbated the problem.

  • D. White says:

    Powerful Piece my Brother!

  • S. Muhammad says:

    We have to look at what has worked and replicate that model. There is no sense in reinventing the wheel. I believe that we need to re-establish our power as parents first and let our children know we expect the best. We are the first teachers. We can not expect white women to teach our black boys. This is where I see the problem. From the start they are continuely being told that they are “out of turn” “out of line” and just plain out. So we need to encourage our young men to become teachers and support them in this. In the meantime, those of us with children in these schools need to let the teachers and staff know that we expect our children to be taught and then we stay involved. We do not allow our children to misbehave but we do NOT allow insensitive teachers and staff the power to do as they will with our children. We are paying their salaries. Everyone is accountable!

  • Tracy says:

    Great job with the article, I have a son who is 24 years old in prison. Before I started teaching in 2001, I was clueless about Baltimore City Public School System. I allow some of my son’s teachers intimidate me about my son’s education. My son was in top programs when he was in elementary and middle school. He was rejected from one private middle school and the letter just stated they had selected other students. Going to a public middle school, my son was faced with so many challenges, the school was located in a predominately white area called Hampden. Hampden has a history of having the KKK in the area. Most blacks who work or shopped in that area did not stay around after 5pm.My son was faced with racism and gang activity. As my son entered high school, I felt like he had fell though the holes because I did depend on teachers to give him the best education, instead of taking charge and putting more effort in proactive his education. This lead to him dropping out of school in the 12th grade, his last year. Disappointed and Devastated a mom’s dream deferred. Well I can say since he’s been in prison, my son received his GED. I am proud of him still that he is still pursing his education.

  • Quinton Steverson says:

    I love the article! I thank you for it because I have the same passion and concerns you express for our young males. I grew up in an environment where so many males were just given up on and not motivated to succeed. I started several mentoring programs at my high school and now I am trying to get a organization started up to reach out and help our youth. I am a current undergrad, Secondary Education major at Tuskegee University and I believe we can make a difference.

  • Hillary says:

    Wonderful comments from everyone! All here I believe have an interest in helping young black men. Let us network and have each others email so we can be energized to work for the good of our African American boys who are the future of our race.
    I have started mentoring programs in two schools in different states. I think we should put our heads together and help to solve this problem.

  • Brenda Stewart says:

    Dear Ms. Hillary, I am impressed with all the conversation regarding the gifts of our Black Boys. Let’s network and bring this conversation at the federal level and to every home in America. You can reach me (p.s. Let’s have National Black
    Boy Day)

    Brenda Stewart
    Mother & Advocate for
    Black Boys

  • Melissa williamson says:

    I am the mother of an 12 year old boy. I adopted him at the age of 11. I am very involved in his education and I am at this school at least two times a week . I am involved in all school events PTA ect. He attends a dc public school. What I have found is that the more I am involved the more resistant teachers and staff are. I have talked to other involved parents and they have the same issue. You see even when parents are involved schools still do nt do what they are supposed to do. Now I am facing the issues of sending my son to a boarding school where he can get a good education. He complains all the time about not being able to learn because the kids are so bad. The teachers are terrible. They teach to the test. One day I did a classroom observation and the teacher said we have a test tomorrow. She said we are going to review. Then she said no one should fail because we are going to review the test. So she proceeded to allow the children to write down the test answer and questions.. I was amazed! I can not continue to allow my son to be mis educated.

  • Robert L. Murphy says:

    Uncommon accomplishments
    Uncommon commitment

    I have been an educator for 32 years and I have seen examples of the many of the things stated in the comments above. We have to stop making excuses for our boys failure and be a part of the solution. I am retiring at the end of this school year and I am working to develop an all African American male boarding school. I plan to use the experiences gained from my years of service, the knowledge that I have gained through my doctoral research, and my life experiences of being a Black man in America to craft an institution that will prepare, motivate, empower, and inspire our boys for success. We will not fail our boys!

  • Pamela Menefee says:

    Trying to get some info on how to get assistance on sending my 16yr. to a private school. He went from a A’B’ student to a D’F” student. There is no way we will survive 2 more years of public school.

  • Nicole Hall says:

    Robert Murphy have you opened this school yet?? I would love to enroll my son in that type of school!

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