Courting Success: A New Method for Motivating Urban Black Males
Despite the great strides Black males have made over the last several decades in education, too often we are reminded of their struggle by statistical publications, media depictions and entertainment caricatures that hypothesize their gradual extinction from mainstream society. This extinction from society is shown to some degree by low levels of education and high rates of joblessness and incarceration when compared to Whites.The subordinate status of Black males, however, came before their problems with school achievement. Racial stratification proscribes Blacks to a lower societal status and is at the root of their academic deficiencies. The lower academic performance of Black males is thus related to their limited perceptions of life opportunities as a result of a longstanding subordinate status in America. Traditional American ideology holds that one must work hard in school to earn the proper credentials to compete for desirable jobs. But some Black males perceive this traditional route to success as fruitless due to generations of differential access to pursue an education and gain economic mobility. Black parents today may have experienced an unequal access to better jobs. As a result, Black students may not believe their parents when told about the importance of doing well in school in order to earn a “good” living. Black males may therefore hold high educational goals, but deep down, are not convinced that school perseverance will pay off. They adopt alternatives to school success in trying to attain status in adulthood.One very well documented alternative route to success is through athletics. Research studies reveal that low-achieving urban Black males perceive professional sports as their ticket to success. Combined with low success rates, however, such pursuits do not normally promote academic excellence. And the possibility of experiencing failure upon entering the professional work force can lead to illegal avenues for attaining success that further perpetuate the Black male extinction phenomenon.To address this problem, I implemented a motivational program at an all-boys high school in an urban setting in Southern California. The students were three-quarters Black and one-quarter Latino. Most students participated in football or basketball.This program was based on research regarding Black males and their perceptions of viable avenues for attaining success and the implications these perceptions have on their school performance. The intent of the program was to draw on students’ interest in team sports to teach character. Linking these principles to academic excellence resulted in a broadened scope of student perceptions of viable careers.As their coach, I outlined expectations at the beginning of the program. Students who did not measure up to team expectations were required to attend 6 a.m. workouts. Scores of students met early as we saw the sun rise in the cold, piercing air while we worked to get better. Students attended because they either broke their word, lied, stole, or were late — not measuring up. In some cases, students ran five consecutive mornings or more and met at the university on the weekends to study instead of a facing a suspension. These workouts built character and fostered teamwork. Meetings were also held to facilitate goal setting. Teams selected captains who were charged with convening meetings to review team goals and behavior. And captains met with me to develop leadership skills. Also, monthly award ceremonies were held featuring presentations from speakers who demonstrated leadership across various work sectors. The intent was to relay success stories to students to expand their perception of what is possible to achieve. Among the speakers were: Rep. Maxine Waters, D. Calif., educator and activist Dr. Maulana Karenga, radio personality Tavis Smiley, former Los Angles mayor Richard Riordan and Long Beach superintendent of schools Dr. Carl Cohn.Because the program challenged the status quo, I encountered great resistance from those associated with the school. Teachers and others led student demonstrations and parent meetings to circumvent the effort. Student records were stolen from my office and my car was vandalized. But I was making a difference. While other teachers preferred rewarding students who earned an “A” letter grade or were model students, I chose to positively reinforce at-risk students for isolated examples of success. I rewarded character and excellence outside of academics.The conditioning, meetings, awards, speakers and writing competitions culminated in the Wall of Champions unveiling. Drawing on the sports analogy, the unveiling of student pictures on the Wall brought excitement to the idea of attending school and doing well academically. Students were recognized for demonstrated growth, character and integrity.The energy on the campus at the end of the program was breathtaking. Those who earlier resisted were filled with positive emotional energy. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. — Dr. Jared R. Lancer is an education consultant and founder of the Catalyst Academy of Champions, a summer institute serving high-risk student-athletes.
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