There are plenty of challenges in public schools, but the greatest crisis we face in education today is that of black male learners: The national high school graduation rate for black males is a shocking 47 percent.
Although that national rate is extremely low, when it is disaggregated by large school districts, the statistics become even more alarming. In many districts across the country, the high school graduation rate for black males ranges from 19 to 30 percent.
When you couple this graduation data with the percentages of black males who are suspended, expelled, and referred to special education—which is the highest referral rate in the nation—it becomes increasingly evident that this population is in great crisis. In fact, I would venture to say that, regarding the black male learner, we are in a national state of emergency. There is a direct correlation between these percentages and the number of black males who are incarcerated.
So, what is the problem? One alarming statistic is the percentage of black children in general, and black males in particular, who are born into households without a father or male figure. That number hovers at around 70 percent. If men are not present in the home, where are these boys going to find male role models? It won’t be in most of the schools they attend; black males constitute less than 2 percent of teachers in the United States.
As an educator for the past 21 years, I saw early on that these questions were not being answered. Year after year, I studied the data and saw that large numbers of black males were reading one to three years below grade level, which I determined had nothing to do with an inability to learn. As long as these boys lack proper models of excellence they can consistently see and interact with, we are merely spinning our wheels in trying to hold their attention in the classroom. Proper role models, who black males can relate to and identify with, allow them to see that there are men who have walked down the same road they are walking today and who have overcome adversity to live successful lives.
I decided that these desperate times for my black male students called for drastic measures. To meet this crisis head on, in my capacity as a school principal, I developed the Young Men’s Empowerment Program. The program has 12 components, but it's anchored by what we called Power Monday. On Power Mondays, all males were required to come to school in a shirt, tie, slacks, shoes, and belt. They looked like business professionals, and we were able to get parents to buy into the concept and support our effort.
Right after our morning announcements, I would call a grade level of male students—from all backgrounds, not just black males—to the cafeteria, where they'd be greeted by male staff and volunteers recruited from the community. In those thoroughly planned three-hour meetings, we would talk to the students and engage them in conversations about being men and about the challenges and the prospects for the future.
In the Power Monday meetings, my males had opportunities to hear from many men, including myself outside of my role as principal. We found black male role models that they can relate to and identify with, men who have overcome adversity to live successful lives. The students heard about our experiences and learned that, despite challenges and obstacles, success can still be theirs. And, although our school was majority black, because all males need strong role models, my male students from other racial and ethnic backgrounds also benefited from this experience.
As a result of these meetings, my male students began to grow and evolve. This translated into significant improvement in student achievement as well: within two years of starting the program, we received national recognition for our students’ achievement levels, which I attributed in large part to our Power Monday meetings.
Our success with Power Monday meetings and putting our black male students on the right track is something that can be replicated by any school. If our nation’s teachers, principals, and schools are truly committed to putting black males on the right path, they’ll make it happen.