Symposium: National Intervention Urged for African-American Boys

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by Jamaal Abdul-Alim

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In order to improve long-term educational outcomes for African-American boys—including those who ultimately become college graduates—key developmental supports must be put in place during the earliest years of their lives, particularly for those exposed to a “toxic cocktail” of poverty and all its attendant stressors.

That’s the essential message that emanated from “A Strong Start: Positioning Young Black Boys for Educational Success”—a symposium held at the National Press Club on Monday and jointly sponsored by the Educational Testing Service and the Children’s Defense Fund.

The conference focused primarily on the critical nature of the first nine years of life and how intellectually enriching experiences during this period—or lack thereof—can have a lifelong impact. And it put as much emphasis on what takes place when Black boys are still in the womb, in the cradle and in pre-school as it did on what takes place when they enter kindergarten and ultimately traverse from the first through fourth grade.

Several speakers—from those in the audience to panelists and conference conveners—attacked a culture of low expectations that they say permeates America’s classrooms, where they allege that Black boys too often get wrongly pegged as low academic performers and swiftly and inordinately punished for effusing energy that is often misinterpreted and misunderstood.

“Children live up or down to our expectations,” said Marian Wright Edelman, the esteemed founder and president of the Children’s Defense Fund. “We have to break the code of silence when children are being rained on and their hopes are being rained on and their futures being dimmed because adults are telling them that they’re not worth very much.”

The conference drew about 300 registrants, including a significant number of higher education scholars and administrators, who seized the opportunity to proffer new paradigms of resilience over deficiency and to ask what can be done on campuses throughout the nation to address issues that impact students long before they arrive at college.

Dr. Thurmond Bridges, professor of urban teaching at Morgan State University, said he was particularly struck by the comments of Dr. Oscar Barbarin, a Tulane University social psychologist who posited that Black boys represent the “barometer of society” because of their high degree of responsiveness to negative and positive factors in the environment.

“If Black boys represent the pulse of society, then I think we are a bit short-sighted in critiquing Black boys and Black parents,” Bridges said. “What we should focus our attention on is their resiliency and their ability to survive in this society, given the fact that it was built and established for their demise,” Bridges said, recounting America’s history as a country built upon “cheap labor.”

Russlyn Ali, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, also attacked the culture of low expectations but said that important lessons on how to turn things around are being learned from the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competitive grant competition. Similar lessons will be learned from its second round of Race to the Top Funds, which involves $500 million for early learning—a key focus of the symposium, she said.

“Those lessons learned over the last 18 months about the kind of action competition can spur cannot go unnoticed,” Ali said. “It is about taking those lessons with these new dollars and ensuring we get the same kind of aggressive change on early learning for poor kids so we can do this right.”

Ali also said her office is investigating disciplinary practices at school systems where Black boys are being punished disproportionately and more severely for the same infractions perpetrated by White students. She blamed the situation on individual educators empathizing more with White students as being good students who were acting out because they were experiencing difficult situations, whereas educators were less understanding of Black boys’ behavioral issues.

“As we worked with (schools) to understand what was going on, they were making individual choices that were aggregating to civil rights violations,” Ali said. School systems would be given the opportunity to remedy the problem but could face loss of federal funds if disparities persist, she added.

Other panelists spoke of how lack of male role models, maternal depression and stress and lack of nurturing and low education levels among parents can conspire to create circumstances for young Black males that make them feel dejected or lead to aggression or other behavioral issues.

They come to see themselves as not fitting in well and not reinforced very much in their schools,” said Tulane’s Barbarin. “And so they begin to look for alternative places, and as a result we see a decline in achievement.”

Several audience members expressed keen interest in a slide presentation given by Dr. Iheoma Iruka, a researcher in the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Among other things, Iruka’s slides showed significant statistical gaps in academic and cognitive development between Black boys—including those born to middle-class families—and boys from other ethnicities. The statistics showed lower reading and math scores that start out small in kindergarten and widen as time goes on. They also showed lower rates of book reading and higher rates of TV watching for Black boys than boys from other ethnicities.

“The social and family disparities exist at birth and continue throughout,” Iruka said. “When you start at that low level you stay at that low level and the disparity continues.”

“The next step is to ensure that African-American boys experience affection, correction and protection,” Iruka said. “That means that  they experience that we love them and care about them. We need to be able to show all of this for them.”

For Dr. J. Milton Clark, associate vice president for undergraduate studies at California State University at San Bernadino, said higher education leaders must pay attention to what affects Black boys before they reach campus or else they will have to deal with the negative consequences once they reach campus.

“If students who come to us don’t have the requisite basic skills, we have to spend money on developmental work, which means that we’re walking over ground that should have been covered,” said Clark, who works with CSU’s African-American Initiative to get more African-American youths into college.

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