June 3, 2020

When will we get serious about black boys in public schools?

o-BLACK-STUDENTS-facebookHow does it feel to be a problem?” – W.E.B. Dubois

Last year when the verdict was read in the George Zimmerman trial I predicted there would be a swollen outcry, followed by a return to peaceful apathy. I had seen this routine before. An outrage occurs, the outrage machines hums on high, and then, nothing.

The value of a black life, especially that of a black boy, remains the unanswerable riddle for justice loving and hating people alike.

I watched as people changed their Facebook profile pictures to reflect their “solidarity” with Trayvon Martin, the black teenager who was killed by Zimmerman. I watched the nation put Trayvon on trial in the media for his own death. I clicked “like” on the passionate Facebook meme’s that were viral, participated in purgative community discussions, and agonized over the legacy of racial injustice that continues to play out day in, day out.

In my heart I knew the outcry for Trayvon (and the subsequent deaths of other black males) was an activist’s episode that would subside. Protesting in the moment is easy. Deep, long term analysis that continually engages the systems that oppress us is more difficult, which possibly explains our episodic activism that continually produces hollow victories.

A year later the Facebook profiles have reverted back, and the major American systems continue to normalize the mass dehumanization of black boys.

The public school plantation

Schools are where black boys first encounter a public system. In this institution they are supposed to receive effective support for their healthy intellectual development, but in truth, this is the system most responsible for diminishing their lives. It is the first place they are officially defined as lesser-than, and too often criminalized. It’s where they receive the first messages that this country isn’t for them, or by them, and that they are alien to all things considered great about the United States. Their overseers are mostly white, mostly female, and mostly incapable of understanding 400 hundred years of socialization that makes the casting of public schools all wrong.

I don’t say that carelessly, or ignorantly, but from years of experience, observation, and study. I bombed out of school myself, then labored over school decisions for my own child, and later I was fortunate enough to serve on an urban school board. That last experience was like being Neo in the Matrix. It revealed the systemic ways in which black boys are purposefully sequestered into schools with lesser academic programming, fewer learning opportunities, and with staff who often have misdiagnosed them with a range of deficiencies intended to draw more money to “the problem” while also vindicating the K-12 system from any responsibility for results.

I also learned that as they are corralled into these failure factories they are being harvested for their per pupil revenue to support unrelated district initiatives. Highly segregated schools characterized by poverty and black students draw enormous sums in categorical aid and become district profit centers where teachers who have quit teaching but continue to come to work can be conveniently accommodated after richer, whiter schools pressure them out.

It’s an open secret that black boys are channeled into a pipeline characterized by weak curriculum, prevalence of subjective special education labeling, hyper-vigilance in-school policing practices, and a dearth of culturally competent, qualified staff who believe it is possible to have melanin and intelligence simultaneously.

But, it’s not easy to make a meme out of that and get Facebookers to trade it broadly.

It’s all well and good to get activisty when we have a death in our national family, as we did with Trayvon, but what about the slow motion death of black boys who are being denied an education daily in large numbers?

We’re not serious.

We know that black boys are are disproportionately in schools where the average pay of their teachers gets lower as the classrooms become blacker and poorer. They are tracked into level I and level II special education resource rooms (instead of classrooms) with teachers that lack the pedagogical and content knowledge to teach them.

In 2007 when I first joined the Minneapolis Board of Education my colleagues enacted something called the Northside Initiative. We touted it as a plan to revitalize education in an impoverished section of town, but really it was a poorly conceived plan to close 5 schools and force seas of black children into crowded schools with the promise that the cost-savings would allow schools to offer more band, art, and wrap around services. As part of the plan we closed schools that had positive legacies in the black community, and at the same time, we left open two of the worst performing schools on planet Earth.

The reason? Because the bus routes would be easier to arrange.

Of course community activists fought the power. School board meetings filled with angry protesters. They brought signs, letters, and a list of speakers who offered recollections of many misdeeds of the district going back to the 1970s. It was an impressive show of force. I expected it to make a difference. Yet, a cynical district employee told me it wouldn’t be long before the protests would recede and normal business would continue. Apparently that had been a pattern district brass could count on.

In the end the district moved forward with the plan over the objections of the community. They “saved” $3 million, of which only $1 million supported enhancements for the newly over-crowded schools, and $2 million that went back into the district general fund for vanity projects elsewhere. It was a fleecing of black students, plain and simple. I was the lone vote against the plan, and my “no” vote was seen as petulance rather than vigilance against a half-baked plan that the community was right to oppose.

Today, in one of the new schools math and reading proficiency for black boys stands at 10% and 14% respectively. At the other math and reading proficiency rates are at 18% and 10% respectively. The goal touted by the district when closing their old schools and redirecting money was to have 80% of them proficient within 5 years.

The goal was a fantasy, the Northside Initiative failed colossally, and no one talks about it any more.

In 2010 we came to another district plan that sought to close racial gaps in test scores. This time our district threatened to close North Senior High School due to very poor academics and vanishing community support. For years district leaders had promised to restore the school to an era when it had performed very well. But students, families, and staff only saw empty promises and programmatic chaos. By the time of the threatened closing the school had an 11% proficiency rate and not a single proficient student was a boy.

Get your mind around that for a minute. A nearly all black school where no boy was proficient.

A host of activists, almost none whom sent their own children to that school, came out of the woodwork to “save North High.” They managed to keep the building open, and since then the 4 year graduation rate for black boys who qualify for free or reduced lunch has tumbled from 56% to 38%. The school has a third of the curricular, co-curricular, or extra-curricular programming found in the district’s top two high schools. Because of the tiny enrollment about a third of the students per pupil funding evaporates to pay for a large facility.

But, while adults feel good about their “victory,” the school is not helping black boys reach their potential.

So, excuse me if I sound cynical about the the Minneapolis Public Schools’ new proposal to open a new Office of Black Male Achievement. It’s a great idea to have an office that will be charged with addressing the many systemic inequities that impact outcomes for black boys. As someone who has advocated this endeavor almost since I left the board, I see it as a bold move. It’s a long awaited recognition that lives are on the line, and our community is in a crisis. But closer inspection of the fine print reveals another half-hearted effort that lacks expertise and critical thinking.

The first sign is the anemic $200,000 budget allocated for the office. District leaders say this amount is “seed” money. More will follow once they have a plan. But even that is another flag. They don’t have a plan. They are out of the gate with a major initiative, without any internal expertise in the field of black male achievement, and with a budget that can only be viewed as a sign that their heart is not in it.

They are not serious. If we don’t put pressure on them, then we’re not serious either.

We must be vigilant and united

Recently a group of community activists banded together to demand the Minneapolis Public Schools make a greater investment into the Office of Black Male Achievement. We are an unusual alliance of people who often disagree on education issues. We sometimes get caught up in the left/right hegemony, joining opposing teams and failing to stand together as leaders in our community. But God has blessed us with a moment in time when discord is low and we stand united about the need for public school leaders to prioritize the needs of black males.

The thing we euphemistically call the “achievement gap” starts with a belief gap. It is the gulf between what our black boys are capable of achieving, and the low standards their caretakers too often believe they are capable of achieving.

While we talk about high standards for all, even school districts have internalized a disbelief about our children. They often speak to perceived deficiencies (poverty, absenteeism, behavior, culture, etc.). I sat on a panel with one district official who told a room of new teachers that research shows that classroom factors are only 30% responsible for student achievement. This is the same official who is tasked with managing the district’s black male initiative.

He isn’t terribly original in his perspective. When Nekima Levy-Pounds, as sister in our group, wrote a recent blog post in the Star Tribune about the crisis facing our black boys, the comments section went crazy.

Here’s what one symbolic commenter had to say:

The educational system is in crisis generally because of the relentless and ultimately ineffective calls for more and greater emphasis on racial disparities.  For better or for worse, school budgets are always a zero-sum game in the short term and the relentless myopic focus on “the achievement gap” has directed resources away from education generally to providing social services to specific identity groups, most always African Americans.  The school system doesn’t now and never will have the vast sums of money needed to overcome the endemic social and cultural problems of poverty, parenting, and crime.  These issues are too broad and too deep to expect the school system’s limited resources to overcome without twisting the educational system into something it’s not.  Case in point, my child tests as “gifted” according to MPS, yet there are ZERO gifted resources in our school.  Why should my child’s future and development be seen as something that can be shortchanged?

Sadly, this sentiment echoes many email messages I received while on the board of education. It mirrors what I hear teachers say in private conversations. It sounds like district leaders who believe the answers to a better education for black boys lies outside of schools and money spent on them is somehow wasted.

While it may be true that many of our sons enter schools with unique challenges that confound an education system that was designed to educate middle-class white children, it is also true that our sons bring unique gifts and talents that these schools have no expertise in discovering. Our children are strong, resilient, and brilliant. They can be tough, and they can be loving. They can be proud even when they’re shamed. And, they’re all different. It sounds a little stupid to have to say that, but so often our black boys are talked about as if they are a homogenous body that lack individual characteristics, abilities, and dreams.

President Obama has come out with a major initiative to focus on boys. Local and national foundations are slowly joining the effort. Politicians are seeing the viability of articulating visions, however small, for addressing justice issues.

My question is what will we do? How strong will we stand together in the face of a million excuses for why our children are not achieving to potential? How focused can we be, and for how long?

The answers to those questions will define how serious we are in this community about prioritizing black boys and loving them toward their God given potential.

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