Ideas to aid black youths

Md. panel proposes tactics for academic success of males

December 14, 2006|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun reporter

To push more black male students toward success, Maryland should turn to academic solutions such as single-sex classrooms and street-level fixes such as pairing ex-convicts with young men in the neighborhood, a panel of education experts told the state school board yesterday.

A task force of 45 educators, business leaders and union officials met for two years to prepare a report intended to address a persistent problem in academic achievement for black males in the state.

"There is a crushing sense of urgency that permeates this report," said Dunbar Brooks, co-chairman of the task force and vice president of the Maryland State Board of Education. "If we don't make this change, we have failed as a society and a nation."

Many of the study's 18 recommendations would be expensive to implement and would require action by local school districts. Panel members would not predict the likelihood of their proposals becoming reality, and many said the findings would need strong advocates if they are to be followed.

Maryland last tackled the difficult topic in 1993, when then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer convened a task force on black males in the state. But those recommendations were largely ignored, in the absence of political leadership pushing them.

"These recommendations need an independent group to monitor our progress and hold our feet to the fire if we fail to make it," the report said.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, chairwoman of the task force, said the next step is to define what body in Maryland is responsible for each of the recommendations in the report.

The report calls for school systems to stop placing large numbers of black males in special-education classes, where they are over-represented, and stop sending them home when they are suspended instead of providing constructive punishment inside the school.

The report also endorses the use of more single-sex classes inside regular schools, saying research points to a rise in academic achievement among boys segregated by gender.

African-American males also need to be challenged in higher-level courses and need to understand what it takes to get into college, the report says. So it recommends increasing the number of students who take PSATs and Advanced Placement classes.

The disparity in academic achievement for African-American males has remained a persistent problem.

In 2003, 76 percent of white males graduated from high school, compared with 53 percent of black males in Maryland.

For every four black men in college, there are three behind bars.

Only a small percentage of black men get to college, and fewer still graduate. In Maryland, black men earn 15 percent of master's degrees and 7 percent of doctorates.

But even if they apply and are accepted to college, they sometimes cannot find the money to attend, said Olan M. Johnson, co-chairman of the panel and treasurer of the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents.

Black students are now being turned away from colleges in the state because they cannot find enough financial aid, he said. So under one of the group's proposals, Maryland would fully fund state need-based grant and scholarship programs.

Unlike many education proposals, the report acknowledges the "inextricable connection between a child's emotional well-being and his academic success" and makes a number of unusual suggestions.

In school, the report says, any black male who has behavior or academic problems should be given an advocate who can listen to him and intercede on his behalf.

Outside of school, the report calls for Maryland to fund programs that find black men to mentor boys. But when black men cannot be found, a mentor of a different race is better than no mentor.

Other supports for young men could be found in their neighborhoods.

Ex-inmates who are returning to their neighborhoods often need help in reconnecting to their communities, the report said, and many young children need father figures.

"Maybe it is counterintuitive to put children and ex-offenders together. And maybe it's exactly what each one needs," the report said. The ex-offenders might offer lessons in the mistakes they have made in their lives to those boys growing up in the same neighborhood, it said.

Any ex-offenders would have to be carefully screened and any mentoring would have to be closely monitored.

"We realize this may get some people's juices going," Brooks acknowledged, but he said the proposal is one to be considered.

Other recommendations include:

Placing more qualified teachers in the lowest-performing schools.

Providing better child care for young children.

Improving school-based mental and physical health care.

Greater funding for schools in correctional facilities.

State school board members were generally supportive of the recommendations, although some said they believe local school systems would be crucial in seeing that they are implemented. They also recognize that black families must take their part in the change.

"There is a cultural dimension, and that cultural dimension is going to be harder to get at," said state school board President Edward L. Root. "It can't be done by the schools alone."

The report will be delivered to the University System of Maryland Board of Regents and the PreK-16 Leadership Council in the coming months. It will be up to both boards to see that it is enacted.

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