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First Lady Embraces Cause of Youths at Risk

Mrs. Bush Emphasizes That Boys, in Particular, Need More Attention
By Vaishali Honawar — February 18, 2005 6 min read
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First lady Laura Bush says schools can incorporate simple, inexpensive programs to help boys develop academically and socially, such as using well-researched curricula and recruiting more men to take up teaching.

“The number of men in schools is decreasing, and as more and more boys live in single-parent families and because of mobility in current American life, there is no guarantee they will have a male father figure at all in their lives,” Mrs. Bush said in an interview with Education Week at the White House last week. “So it is important for us to encourage more men to get into teaching, particularly in inner-city, underserved areas where boys are more likely to need a mentor as a role model.”

Laura Bush

Mrs. Bush recently launched an initiative, called Helping America’s Youth, that will focus on the development of the country’s children, especially boys.

“It seemed to me that we neglected boys over the past several decades, and I wanted to see what we could do to help them build successful lives,” she said.

In his State of the Union Address last month, President Bush proposed $150 million for the initiative over three years. The initiative, targeted at young people ages 8 to 17, is also intended to focus on helping youths at risk of becoming gang members, especially boys. As part of the initiative, Mrs. Bush hopes to spotlight successful prevention and intervention programs by focusing on the efforts of coaches, clergy members, and mentors around the country, particularly those with programs tailored to boys. She also aims to educate parents and communities on the importance of programs that help steer boys away from trouble and toward academic development.

Mrs. Bush said her awareness of the problems facing boys was heightened by an article that she read in The New York Times Magazine in August 2004, titled “Raising Kevion,” about a young African-American ex-con fighting the odds to stay out of trouble as he raised his son near Milwaukee.

“I started thinking about how we have bought into the stereotype about boys and men,” she said. Mrs. Bush noted that more boys than girls drop out of school, fewer males graduate from college, and most gang members are male, as are most of the young people who end up in prison. She hopes her initiative can change those patterns and help end the harmful stereotype.

During the Feb. 17 interview in the Map Room of the White House, Mrs. Bush said middle schools and high schools can play a major role in helping boys’ advancement by incorporating programs that help them grow academically and get them to stay out of trouble.

“There is very helpful new research that shows how you can intercede in a young person’s life to make sure they learn to read in middle school and high school,” she said. “The good news is children can be brought to grade level pretty quickly if you teach reading systematically at that age, because they already have a good vocabulary as compared to, say, a 1st grader. But it would take very systematic teaching.”

Her emphasis on middle schools and high schools, she said, also ties in with her husband’s efforts to expand the No Child Left Behind Act’s provisions at the high school level. President Bush proposes to expand mandatory testing in English and mathematics in high schools and provide $1.2 billion in fiscal 2006 for a High School Intervention program. (“Bush’s High School Agenda Faces Obstacles,” Feb. 9, 2005.)

“A lot of the problems associated with boys are because they are not successful at school,” Mrs. Bush said. “As they mature, they can’t find a good job because they are not educated. If we make sure middle schools and high schools produce well-educated students, a lot of problems boys have will disappear.”

Success Stories

The first lady’s deep interest in helping boys may seem unusual, given that she is the mother of two daughters. But Mrs. Bush said that as a former teacher and school librarian, she had a chance to work with both boys and girls.

“My whole life, that’s what I’ve been interested in,” she said, adding it was that interest and the “alarming statistics” about boys that made her decide to direct her attention to them.

Mrs. Bush has begun visiting school and community programs that she believes can serve as models. At George Washington Elementary School in Baltimore, which she visited earlier this month, the Good Behavior program has served as a way of keeping children in school. Students are divided into teams, and anyone who acts out while the class completes an exercise will cause the entire team to get a check mark for bad behavior. The practice motivates the children to encourage one another to follow rules.

Mrs. Bush also recently visited a Boys and Girls Club in suburban Philadelphia and a community center in Detroit to spotlight the work they are doing to help boys. She said that evidence suggests that whenever there is a Boys and Girls Club in a neighborhood, crime goes down.

In the Detroit program, which Mrs. Bush extolled as a national example for steering young people away from gangs, youths are counseled in five sports by coaches who serve as models for teaching respect, discipline, and self-confidence.

“We could prevent boys from even wanting to join gangs, and the need to be cool,” she said. “But what can we present them as an alternative that would be more attractive so that they wouldn’t be tempted to join a gang?”

Some Question Cuts

The $150 million initiative announced by President Bush would also focus on helping at-risk youths keep out of gangs. The money, which still must be appropriated by Congress, would provide grants to community and religious groups that provide a positive model for young people, “one that respects women and rejects violence.”

Michael Kharfen, a spokesman for Fight Crime, Invest in Kids, a Washington-based national anti-crime organization, said that while any money was welcome in the effort to keep young people out of gangs, his group was concerned because Mr. Bush has put on the chopping block funding for existing intervention programs that have been successful.

Those include a $56 million block grant that pays for programs such as the Youth Violence Reduction Partnership, an anti-gang program that, Mr. Kharfen said, has helped reduce gang violence significantly in Philadelphia.

Mr. Kharfen said that his group had seen effective approaches that involve community groups that are faith-based, working in collaboration with law enforcement.

However, the proposed federal money is “not a significant amount of funding,” he said, especially if it comes from reductions in other areas of the budget for fiscal 2006.

“It is not going to make a huge difference from what we see about gang violence on the rise,” Mr. Kharfen said. “For us to be truly effective, we need more resources.”

While details of the youth initiative are yet to be worked out, Mrs. Bush said grants would go only to programs that have a proven record of success. “The American taxpayers want to know that their money is being used on really effective programs that will really help,” she said.

For now, Mrs. Bush will continue to turn her high-powered spotlight as the first lady on the programs she believes have helped change children’s lives.

“I am going to talk about the different programs that we know have been effective,” she said. “That way I can spotlight them so people around country can know about them and hear about them.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2005 edition of Education Week as First Lady Embraces Cause of Youths at Risk

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