The graduation rate for African American males in Pennsylvania is 57 percent compared to 85 percent for white males--a 28 percentage point gap, according to the latest data from the Schott Foundation for Public Education. Reasons for the discrepancy are complex.
John Jackson, CEO of the Schott Foundation said there’s no genetic explanation for racial differences in educational performance, so the variations must lie in social policies and practices. “It’s worth noting that graduation rates for African American males are not lower in places like Vermont, Maine, and North Dakota, where they are so small in number that they can’t be relegated or isolated in under-resourced spaces. In those spaces, they perform on par or even better than their white male peers."
According to Jackson the foundation wanted to see how white males fare in under-resourced districts, “We went to Detroit, where the black male graduation rate was 21 percent, and the white male graduation rate was 19 percent”
Hampton Conway, principal of Propel East Charter School in Turtle Creek, said poverty and isolation create an opportunity gap. “Middle class and upper class--their kids—they’ve been on an airplane three times by the time they’re in second grade. They’ve seen other parts of the country, other parts of the world, and that’s an education. When you grow up in a bubble, a lot of times all you see is all you know.”
Conway recalled driving one of his students to the Waterfront in Homestead. “He was living in North Versailles—15 or 20 minutes away. His eyes lit up as soon as we drove down there--he’s like, 'Where are we?' I said, 'This is the Waterfront.’ He said, ‘Oh, I heard about this place!’ We’re twenty minutes away; he’s in 8th grade! When you think about kids that just haven’t seen outside of their small kind of little world--yeah, their minds are limited, and we’ve got to crack that open and get them out to the zoo and to other places.”
Conway said distant realities might not make up for the lack of exposure. “When Obama became president, this is great, young black boys and young black girls now realize they can be anything they want to be because, look, we have a black president, which, yeah, is good, but there are still young black boys and young black girls that Obama is so far removed from their reality," Conway said. Everyday they see their uncle on the corner; they see mom on the corner; they see cousin over here smokin’ weed. Now if that’s what you see every single day, day in and day out, that's your reality.”
Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Linda Lane said Pittsburgh has high numbers of African Americans living in poverty, which does impact learning, but that’s not the whole story. “Race is a factor as well, and if we pretend otherwise, we’re not going to find much in the way of solutions because we’re being pretty naïve.”
The legacy of slavery still affects African Americans, according to Lane--a view shared by Jerone Morris, who teaches first grade at Faison K-5 in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh. “Once legalized slavery was ended, we didn’t necessarily go back and repair the damage that was done that put them in a situation where they accepted slavery," Morris said. "For those hundreds of years that we were slaves, the black man—his value was only in his labor and his breeding. And so where in time do we mark that it was made clear to black men that you have a value of contributing something to your community other than what you were brought here for.”
African Americans--boys especially—have often internalized negative messages about themselves by late elementary school, according to Katy Carroll, who teaches kindergarten at Faison. “They’ve had some experiences that are telling them, ‘Maybe I’m not as smart; maybe I’m not as good; maybe I’m not as this; maybe I’m not as that.’"
African American boys are "star" students when they enter school according to Jerone Morris. “It’s not until around 4th or 5th grade, we not only see an achievement gap between black boys and white boys; black boys and black girls; but we see a decline when we compare them to themselves in the early grades.”
Cultural alienation leads to decreasing achievement, said Morris. “The energy that students bring to school—the physical energy, social energy—isn’t always valued. In that sense, schools, as institutions, are not conducive to the development of African American students. You’re 5, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11 years old and you feel like you’re in this antagonistic environment. Not just because of your race because I don’t think kids at the elementary level see the race especially in the communities where I teach because we’re all black, but when you just feel like it’s an antagonistic environment. Think about the damage that does.”
According to Morris, alienation creates an identity crisis that worsens in middle school and high school. “In the typical elementary school classroom, you have a white, middle class, suburban female, and then you have a poor, African American, inner city boy. There’s a lot of differences in terms of how they perceive the world, but more importantly, how they interact with the world. And so sometimes we see the teacher imposing her cultural styles on those students. ‘You will conduct yourselves…you will interact with the world according to my values, not necessarily the values you bring to school.’”
A lack of interaction between different communities affects students and teachers, according to Katy Carroll. “My first school was up in Garfield. In Mt. Lebanon we had no black children; it was very, especially when I was growing up, one race, one way. And even in college, I didn’t have that much interaction with African Americans. So, coming in to teach in this all-African American school, coming from Mt. Lebanon and the white suburban, upper middle class values that I had, I remember the day very, very clearly that I realized, ‘There are 25 of them and there’s one of me. I have to come to them; they can’t come to me.’”
Teacher Jerone Morris offered a formula of sorts for helping African American students--boys in particular--to find their way. “Embracing them as people when they first come in. Equipping them with the skills but also providing an opportunity for them to be successful in those upper elementary years. But then when you get into middle school, you’ve got to work on that identity formation.”
Morris said explicit guidance is needed. “’This is the struggle. These are the hurdles, and the work has to be to navigate that.’ There’s a technical piece—learning how to read, write and do math. I don’t think that’s the challenge. It comes fairly easy if you’re committed. And then when they get older, a lot of conversations. What is the purpose of you putting in these long hours, what is the purpose of your education, what is the purpose of your degree? Where do you see yourself fitting into society when you’re 20, 25, 30 years old? I think those are the things that are missing.”
Providing these things, said Morris, will increase the chances for African American males to achieve success, not only in school, but in life.