Rose Tave, Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, Feb. 4
Forty-eight percent of African American boys drop out of the public schools in Hennepin County, and only one of every four African American boys in the Minneapolis Public Schools graduates on time.
“By fourth grade, many African American boys are already falling behind in the classroom. It [is]…especially noticeable among students from low-income families,” according to Dr. James Comer, director of the Yale Child Studies Center in an April 1997 Parenting Magazine article. Cromer is an educator who has been in the forefront of Black child development reform for nearly 30 years.
Why is this fourth grade floundering especially apparent in young Black males? In the lower grades, the classroom atmosphere is more of a companionable social interaction, and mixing-type learning environment. Whereas by fourth grade, the approach to teaching transforms into a static, sit-in-your-seat, listen, and lecture-type surrounding.
Harry Morgan, an early childhood development professor, believes that “this change in teaching method from a casual, relaxed hands-on instruction to a formal sit-at-attention-and-listen style…is toughest on male students, who tend to be more active than girls in the elementary grades. And for Black boys, a teacher’s reaction to these high energy levels may be compounded by racism.” Morgan states that even Black teachers may share this undercurrent of fear or tension toward young Black males.
This alarm may be set off by something as simple “…as a Black boy walking around the room.” The teacher may feel that if a Black child is allowed even the slightest infraction, his behavior will escalate out of control. This teacher could be faced with a baffling situation — how can I solve this problem of an unruly child, yet maintain order for the other students?
A White sixth grade teacher in Minneapolis answers, “If four or five kids are always causing problems in your class, it’s not fair to the remaining 20 students…so the troublemakers are frequently referred to Special Ed. What else are you going to do? You can either be their teacher or their therapist. You can’t be both.”
In 2000, African American boys accounted for 23 percent of the Minneapolis Public Schools student body; however, they made up 37 percent of all students in Special Ed programs, and 55 percent of all students in programs for emotional/behavioral disorders.
Special Ed programs often provide a place to discard Black and/or low-income children who have behavior issues rather than lack of abilities.
Research by authors of The Reading Crisis reveals that one third of the low-income and low-achieving readers were reading below their intelligence level by a year or more.
Data from the “Minneapolis Research Valuation and Assessment of 2002” exposes the reading achievement gap that exists between African American students and White students: 85 percent of White students passed the Minnesota MBST reading assessment, while only 39 percent of African American students passed. What is the reason for this?
The author of Conspiracy of Ignorance, Martin L. Gross, writes that “…more than likely the failure is due to the incompetence of the establishment. [The school system] has relegated poor children to the academic scrap heap [of Special Ed], blaming [the student,] their parents and the community instead of placing the blame where it belongs — on the school system, its principals and its teachers.”
Gross contends that “it’s not because of racism, or less attention to African American and Hispanic children… Much of the real reason…is that the establishment’s theories on how to teach reading are ineffective.”
From other research studies, we find that if the child is not reading well by the fourth grade, he is often feeling embarrassed, and he would rather be labeled bad rather than dumb. He acts out these aggressive behaviors to detract from his lack of reading skills.
Seed Academy Harvest Prepartory School (HPS), a Minneapolis charter school with over 95 percent African American students, substantiates Gross’s conclusions. HPS is just one example of several schools that successfully educate poor and minority students. They use a core learning curriculum that emphasizes the basics: “…multiplication tables, spelling, phonics, rote learning.”
And, in March 2003, third graders at HPS surpassed the state in reading. State scores were 76.3 percent at or above grade level. HPS scores were 95.7 percent at or above grade level. The state scored 17.3 percent superior performance beyond grade level, and HPS scored 23.4 percent superior performance beyond grade level.
Another successful approach was uncovered by Durkin. He used the research strategy of comparing “…low-income above-average readers with low-income below-average readers. The findings were that Black children who were highly successful at reading had books at home, had help with their homework from a parent or someone else…” and that they were expected to go to college.
Many of these children were already reading prior to entering kindergarten. Obviously, some older sibling or adult had spent quality time with the child during the critical period of zero to five years, according to Durkin.
One of the critical causes of educational trouble for African American boys is low parental involvement. In Parents magazine, September 1997, Mitchell Trockmen, former associate superintendent for elementary and secondary education for Minneapolis Public Schools proclaims “Parents who act as advocates [for their child] aren’t being pushy or meddling, they are appropriately concerned.”
The bottom line here is that to prevent failure of Black boys in the public schools, we must forge a strong teacher/parent relationship.
Rose Tave, though born in Greenville, Texas, has spent most of her life in Minneapolis. She attended Minneapolis public schools, Minneapolis Community College, and the University of Minnesota. She has two sons and one grandson. She welcomes reader responses to LocallySpeaking@aol.com.