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Finding Ways to Better School African American Boys

May 17, 2007 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

Group Proposes Mentors, Single-Sex Classrooms

(Akiit.com) Maryland – A new report by a statewide task force that paints a grim picture of how African American male students are faring in Maryland’s public schools and universities recommends strengthening mentor programs, encouraging more black men to be teachers and providing more academic support for those who need it.

Two of the more controversial proposals are suggestions to place troubled students at black-majority high schools into single-sex classes and to encourage nonviolent offenders to be mentors to students.

Black students make up 38 percent of the state’s public school population, with the percentage much higher in some regions. In Prince George’s County, for example, the amount is more than 75 percent, and in Charles County, it’s about 46 percent.

The Task Force on the Education of Maryland’s African-American Males found that 10 years after a similar group chaired by then-Del. Elijah E. Cummings (D) studied the issue and offered recommendations for change, little progress has been made.

We acknowledge that at every level, there’s been a fundamental failure on behalf of our African-American male students and a persistent bias against them. These recommendations are intended to rectify both,” the report says.

Dunbar Brooks, a Maryland State Board of Education member who co-chaired the task force, said it is also important to understand that the recommendations could help all groups of students who are struggling.

The report cites several statistics to bolster the contention that more needs to be done. Of the 32,000 African American boys in the 10th, 11th and 12th grades eligible to take an Advanced Placement exam in 2005, the report says, only 1,229 did so. The report also notes that in 2004-05, six of every 10 suspensions involved a black student.

The 49-member panel offers 18 recommendations, including taking steps to reduce the number of African American boys in special education programs; creating mentorship and health programs for children; and offering more academic support.

The report acknowledges that placing some students in single-sex classes many seem harmful but argues that many African American boys are already segregated because they are disproportionately placed in special education and non-college preparatory courses.

For historically disadvantaged students, single-sex classes have shown a consistently positive effect on academic outcomes,” the report says. “In classes where gender and racial differences are suppressed — rather than served — it’s almost always the African-American male who loses out.”

On the recommendation to encourage ex-offenders convicted of nonviolent felonies to serve as mentors, the report says: “Maybe it’s counterintuitive to put children and ex-offenders together. And maybe it’s exactly what each one needs. Life’s lessons aren’t always learned from those who lived it flawlessly.”

But the report notes likely community concerns about such a venture. “Obviously, the program would require strict eligibility restrictions, extensive background checks, and close and continued monitoring,” it says.

Brooks said task force members believed it was important to consider solutions that challenge conventional thinking.

The report also calls for recruiting more black male teachers, noting that “black males make up 19 percent of the public school population but less than 5 percent of its teaching force.” The task force recommends developing a teacher preparation program to help black men work toward certification.

Task force members said African American male students lag behind their peers academically and are more likely to be put in special education classes. Even those who graduate and enroll in college face challenges. African American men make up only 8.5 percent of Maryland’s college population, and only one-third of those who enroll ultimately graduate, the report says.

A. Skipp Sanders, deputy state superintendent for administration for the Maryland State Department of Education, said some of the recommendations — such as increasing the number of students taking PSATs and AP courses — have long had the support of state education officials.

I don’t want this to be another report that winds up on the shelf,” said Sanders, who also served on the task force.

The K-16 Leadership Council, which includes educators from Maryland’s public school and university systems, is expected to outline a plan for implementing some of the recommendations at its June meeting, said Bill Reinhart, spokesman for the state office of education. It is up to this group, chaired by state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, to come up with an action plan.

The task force, which started work in 2003, was originally slated to spend a year studying the issue, but Brooks said the complexity of the problems required more time. Though the report was completed in early 2006, task force members opted not to release it until after the gubernatorial election.

We didn’t want it to become a 30-second talking point in someone’s campaign,” Brooks said.

The task force included parents, teachers, administrators and community members. Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast was a member, as was Ronald A. Williams, the former president of Prince George’s Community College.

Brooks said it is up to education officials and politicians to move the recommendations forward.

We have to generate the political will,” he said. “This is too large a segment of our workforce to basically write them off. And the social ills of not well educating our population are significant.”

By Lori Aratani

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