Of all the challenges we face in education today, I can think of none greater than the challenge of motivating, educating, and empowering black male learners.
The fact that this group of students is in crisis is evident on multiple levels, starting with graduation rates. According to the Schott Foundation (2008), the U.S. high school graduation rate for black males is just 47 percent, compared with 57 percent for Latino males and 75 percent for white males. Alarming as this figure is, the situation becomes even more shocking in large urban school districts, such as New York City, Detroit, and Miami, where the graduation rate for black males ranges from 20 to 30 percent.
The crisis doesn't begin when students drop out of school. In far too many cases, it begins before they even enter school. As they move through the grades, black male students as a group have low achievement levels, excessively high suspension and expulsion rates, and a disproportionate number of special education referrals (Kunjufu, 2005). In my 14 years as an urban middle and high school principal, countless numbers of my black male students entered secondary school reading one to three years below grade level.
These school-related gaps culminate in black male adults who "are more chronically unemployed and underemployed, are less healthy and have access to fewer health care resources, die much younger, and are many times more likely to be sent to jail for periods significantly longer than males of other racial/ethnic groups" (Schott Foundation, 2008, p. 3).
Of course, many black male students do well in school and go on to live successful lives. Millions of black males have achieved great things—and that includes those who grew up in high-poverty and high-crime communities. But we can't ignore the statistics that tell us that our education system is failing far too many of our young black males.
The Role Model Crisis
As an education consultant, I have frequent opportunities to talk with educators at all levels. A staggering number of elementary school teachers tell me they have run out of ideas on how to keep their black male students focused and inspired. Many teachers actually break down in tears during this conversation. They desperately want to help their black male students succeed, but they feel overwhelmed by the challenge.
What can we do?
As I examined this problem and searched for strategies that schools could implement, one thing struck me in particular—the reality that approximately 50 percent of black children in the United States live in households without a father figure present (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012). I began to ask myself, Who is going to provide my black male students with the proper male guidance, direction, leadership, and structure that they desperately need? I wanted my black male students to see adult males who were striving to fulfill their own potential and who were also committed to the growth and development of the younger generation. I felt that if my students had men in their lives whom they could relate to and identify with, they would look at their education differently and the probability for their success would increase exponentially.
Young Men's Empowerment Program
Several years ago, as principal of Newark Tech High School in Essex County, New Jersey, I developed the Young Men's Empowerment Program. The purpose of this program was to teach manhood to our male students, which included our black males, and thus give them a strong sense of purpose for achieving in school.
We began by establishing Power Mondays. Every Monday, all students (both male and female) were required to report to school in business professional attire. For boys, this meant shirt, tie, slacks, shoes, and a belt. Now that the students looked professional, we wanted them to feel professional as well. Each Monday morning, right after the morning announcements, I would take an entire grade level of our male students to the cafeteria, where we participated in a presentation and discussion led by one or more male staff members and men from the community whom we had recruited to be a part of the program. (Incidentally, school staff participants do not have to be teachers; some of our strongest presenters were custodial and security staff members.)
At our Power Monday meetings, we discussed a wide range of topics that are vitally important to our black male students' growth and development—entrepreneurship, goal setting, leadership, oratory, parenting, relationships, community development, and more. We discussed many of these topics not only from the vantage point of the present, but also from the vantage point of 10 to 20 years in the future.
Far too many inner-city black males say they cannot see themselves living beyond the age of 21. We wanted to change this kind of thinking and to help our students develop a vision for their lives. When we discussed parenting, for example, we encouraged the students to start thinking about their own future roles as parents, even though they were only in middle and high school. We were planting seeds for the future.
We were also building on the past, as we introduced our black male students to the history of their people. This was vital because so many of them were unaware that they were the descendants of greatness. As Professor Maulana Karenga (1982), the creator of Kwanzaa, wrote,
History gives blacks an understanding of themselves by suggesting possibilities of future national and world achievement based on what they have achieved in the past. (p. 49)
Our Power Monday meetings were stimulating, and the students looked forward to them every week. They particularly liked the diversity of speakers that we brought to the meetings. We'd bring in men from all walks of life—from professional men to those recently released from prison. Each one had a story to tell that could empower our students. The men who were successful shared what they did to get to where they were, including mistakes they had made and overcome; the men coming out of prison shared how their failure to take education seriously put them on a path of poor decision making and incarceration.
Another effective aspect of Power Monday meetings was having our black male students address topics and questions from the lectern, thus helping them learn how to speak publicly and think on their feet.
Typically, each grade level would meet once a month. Periodically, I would convene a Power Monday meeting of the school's entire male population, in which the older students would often take the lead by offering advice and suggestions to their younger peers. This not only enabled the younger students to learn from their older peers, but also built in accountability for the older students, who felt obligated to practice what they preached because the younger students were watching.
Finally, from time to time, I would take about 25 of the older students to elementary and middle schools where they would be the guest speakers. These younger students looked up to my students, and they enjoyed the messages my students brought.
I remember one visit to a school in Newark, where each of my 25 young men spoke to a captivated audience of about 300 6th–8th graders. The younger students were transfixed, and at the end of the presentation many of them asked me if they could attend our school one day. They said that they wanted to be just like my students.
What were the results of our program? Right before our eyes, we were witnessing growth and change. Our black male students were evolving. They were transforming. They were maturing. They were conducting themselves differently. Fewer of them were being sent to the office for disciplinary reasons—but more important, we saw a heightened sense of purpose in the classroom. Schoolwide, achievement improved so much that the school gained national recognition.
Expanding the Program
As a result of the success of these empowerment meetings, I developed a comprehensive model for a Young Men's Empowerment Program for elementary, middle, and high schools. In addition to Power Monday assemblies, here are some additional components that may be included in such a program:
- Small-group sessions of 3–10 students led by black men.
- One-to-one mentoring with a black male adult for individual students who especially need guidance.
- Opportunities to meet and spend time with black male college students, including visits to a college campus.
- Opportunities to meet and spend time with successful black men in their work environment through partnerships with specific companies and agencies.
- Having black men in positions of political leadership meet with students at the school, as well as allowing students to visit them in their local offices.
- Dress for Success days. If it is not practical to have all students dress professionally every Monday, as we did in my school, you can set aside special Dress for Success days and treat them as celebrations.
- After-school male study groups, in which students with specific interests discuss those interests—for example, learning about black historical figures, such as Malcolm X.
A Universal Message
Although there are many strategies that good teachers of any gender and ethnicity can implement on a classroom level to support the success of black male students, I believe that to maximize our classroom efforts, we must ensure that young black males have opportunities to learn from role models whom they can identify with. The best way of making this happen is to launch a Young Men's Empowerment Program, rooted in Power Mondays (which can actually occur any day of the week). The program works as effectively in racially diverse schools as it does in majority black schools. The message of self-respect is universal, so all students can benefit.
And what are the female students doing while the males are in their Power Monday meeting? They're in their own Power Monday meeting through the school's Young Women's Empowerment Program.
The Empowerment Pledge
Power Monday meetings typically end with students pledging to strive to be the best they can be. For example,
- I pledge to always maintain a positive attitude.
- I pledge to make good, sound decisions.
- I pledge to be serious about my education.
- I pledge to be focused on achieving excellence.
- I pledge to be diligent in my efforts.
- I pledge to be disciplined in my actions.
- I pledge to be resilient after setbacks.
Watch the Interview
Baruti Kafele talks with EL editor in chief Marge Scherer about how schools can better serve black male students.
Karenga, M. (1982). Introduction to black studies. Los Angeles: Kawaida Publications.
Kunjufu, J. (2005). Keeping black boys out of special education. Chicago: African American Images.
Schott Foundation for Public Education. (2008). Given half a chance: The Schott 50-state report on public education and black males. Cambridge, MA: Author. Retrieved from http://blackboysreport.org/bbreport.pdf
U.S. Census Bureau. (2012). Statistical abstract of the United States. Table 69: Children under 18 years old by presence of parents: 2000 to 2012. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2012/tables/12s0069.pdf