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Published in Print: November 5, 2014, as Districts' Push Seeks to Aid Boys of Color

Urban Districts Pledge Progress for Boys of Color

Young men listen intently as President Barack Obama speaks at a town hall meeting about the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative in Washington last July. The effort seeks to improve academic and social outcomes for boys of color.
Young men listen intently as President Barack Obama speaks at a town hall meeting about the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative in Washington last July. The effort seeks to improve academic and social outcomes for boys of color.
—J. Scott Applewhite/AP-File

Blacks, Latinos main focus

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Leaders in some of the nation's big-city school districts say they have new momentum—created by attention from President Barack Obama—to tackle one of the most vexing problems in urban schools: improving academic outcomes for African-American and Latino boys.

But despite the president's high-profile call for action to improve the lives of boys of color in his "My Brother's Keeper" initiative, doing so remains a monumental task for educators. There are no new federal funds to bring to bear, nor is there certainty that the current national focus on the well-being of minority boys will outlast the Obama administration.

Still, 62 big-city school systems—61 of them members of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools—joined the White House initiative this past summer, with a pledge to ramp up their efforts to steer boys of color to higher achievement, better graduation rates, and more successful lives. In the months since, district leaders from Long Beach, Calif., to Anchorage have been reassessing existing programs, partnering with local businesses and governments, and calling for honest conversations about the role race plays in their policies and practices.

While many of the strategies under way are not necessarily novel, district leaders said the collective impact of dozens of school systems working to improve achievement for boys of color holds promise.

Pledging Support for Boys of Color

Dozens of big-city school districts have committed to a range of strategies aimed at boosting the academic success of African-American, Latino, and Native American boys. The pledge they issued this summer calls for the 62 districts to:

  • Implement strategies in early and middle grades to increase the pipeline of minority boys who are on track to do well in high school;
  • Keep data, establish protocols, and monitor the progress of boys of color and other students to facilitate early interventions when needed;
  • Use proven approaches to cut absentee rates—especially chronic absenteeism;
  • Develop retention initiatives to keep males of color in school and reduce disproportionate suspensions and expulsions;
  • Increase participation rates in Advanced Placement, honors, and gifted programs;
  • Encourage teacher-preparation programs to use curricula that address the academic, social, and cultural needs of males of color and keep data on how their teachers perform with students of color;
  • Work to transform high schools with chronically low graduation rates for boys of color, and provide literacy and other engagement initiatives for parents;
  • Reduce the number of minority boys in special education classes;
  • Improve supports for students to complete college financial aid applications and increase the number of students who do so;
  • Spearhead a broader discussion about race, language, and culture in the districts.

"It's not just one district that's moving on its own," said Felton Williams, a member of the Long Beach school board. "They are moving as part of a collective whole. The difference with what you're seeing now is synergy. Everybody is rowing the boat in the same direction."

District Strategies

The Toledo, Ohio, school district, for example, has made its pledge to close the academic achievement gap between minority boys and other students part of its official policy manual. Minneapolis hired an achievement officer who is responsible for developing programs and strategies to chip away at the achievement gap in that district.

And before President Obama called improving the lives of young men of color a "moral issue for our country," when he announced "My Brother's Keeper," the Dayton, Ohio, district had already begun its program to do just that.

The new compact calls for districts to increase the number of minority boys who are succeeding both academically and socially; develop early-intervention strategies; increase graduation rates; reduce absenteeism; cut disproportionate suspension and disciplinary rates; and increase participation in Advanced Placement, honors, and gifted classes.

At the council's annual conference in Milwaukee late last month, district leaders used a symposium that focused exclusively on the achievement gap for boys of color to discuss their own strategies, swap ideas, and get advice on how to improve efforts.

The council's own analysis of scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress is one measure of the wide disparity in performance between minority boys and their white peers.

In 4th grade reading, for example, the mean score for black and Latino boys in urban districts was significantly lower than for white students—with African-American boys' scores flatlined at 200 (out of a possible 500 points) since 2009. For white 4th graders, the mean score didn't budge much since 2009 either, but was still higher at 229 in 2013. Michael D. Casserly, the council's executive director, said his team will collect the districts' detailed plans for improving achievement for minority boys and help fine-tune them.

"We have developed a set of statistical indicators on which we will hold ourselves accountable for whether or not the work that we do actually improves performance for African-American and Hispanic males," Mr. Casserly said.

That will include collecting data from the districts on key measures such as 3rd grade reading proficiency, attendance, suspension rates, and course-completion rates, said Raymond C. Hart, the council's research director.

Mr. Casserly urged the group's members to keep their commitment. He is responsible for reporting to the White House on their progress.

But Andy Smarick, a partner at the Washington-based Bellwether Education Partners, called the strategies a "rehash" of earlier attempts that have failed to improve urban schools' performance.

"These efforts are not enough, and I just get frustrated that we continue to play small ball when so many lives are at stake," Mr. Smarick said.

The districts that are forging ahead have reported some successes with previous efforts, but acknowledge they still have work to do. Chief among their challenges: paying for intervention programs and asking school personnel to confront possible personal biases.

Lasting Impacts?

Some districts, like the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in North Carolina, have set up centers where suspended students can take classes. In the Norfolk, Va., district, high schools have graduation coaches who monitor attendance and course data, enroll students in credit recovery programs, and knock on doors to find out why students aren't coming to school. And the Toledo district formed an ACT task force, extended the school day for junior high school students who were taking classes to prepare for the ACT college entrance exam, and petitioned to have their schools serve as testing centers.

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San Francisco's school district uses a blind review process for admission to special education services that strips the applications of students' names, ethnicity, and grade level—a strategy that Superintendent Richard Carranza said is helping drive down disproportionate rates of minority boys in special education.

But there is skepticism about the lasting impacts of some initiatives. Van Henri White, the president of the school board in Rochester, N.Y., said many worthy plans are under way, but he worries about maintaining them given the high turnover in urban school leadership. Further, he said, too many strategies leave out parents.

"If we are going to successfully build that bridge, it has to be properly anchored with teachers and educators on one end and parents on the other," Mr. White said. "Otherwise, you are not going to close that gap."

Vol. 34, Issue 11, Pages 1,15

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