A Bleak Picture For Young Black Male Students
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
A recent study paints a bleak picture of young, black men in high school. According to the Schott Foundation report, more than half of African-American males don't graduate.
In some places, it's even worse - shockingly worse. New York state's graduation rates statewide for black males is one in four.
Obviously, some places do better, and in some cases much better. In a bit, we'll go to New Jersey, to explore reasons for relative success there and to Detroit, described as the home of dropout factories.
We want to hear from teachers, students and parents with direct experience on this issue today. Why do so many black males drop out of high school? How do we turn that around? 800-989-8255 is the phone number. The email is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, New Mexico reopens the case against Billy the Kid. Hampton Sides joins us on The Opinion Page.
But first, black males and high school. Joining us from the campus of MIT in Cambridge is John Jackson. He's the president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, which released the report on the performance of black males in public education. Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. JOHN JACKSON (President and Chief Executive Officer, Schott Foundation for Public Education): Thank you. Thank you for having me.
CONAN: And how do black males compare with other groups?
Mr. JACKSON: Well, I think you have to look at the fact that nationally, only 47 percent of black males are graduating from high school, which means that our country is losing 50 percent of its product. And as you know, any corporation that loses 50 percent of its product would be left behind.
Nationally, we also recognize that in 30 states, black male are at the bottom; and in the other states where black males are not at the bottom, you will usually find Latino males second to the bottom.
CONAN: And as I understand it, the graduation, overall, nationwide, something about 70 percent?
Mr. JACKSON: Yes.
CONAN: And this is obviously worse in some places than in others. Can you identify factors that contribute to such a terrible dropout rate?
Mr. JACKSON: Well, what our data indicate is that black males perform the best where they are small in number, where they cannot be isolated or relegated to under-resourced schools, places like North Dakota, Vermont.
But we've also noticed that in places like New Jersey, where there is a significant African-American male population, where they've made the decision to equitably distribute their resources, ensure that all students have access to early education, highly effective teachers, that we see positive outcomes.
CONAN: Well, more on New Jersey a bit later in the program. But what contributes to situations where things are terrible, like in New York, just across the river?
Mr. JACKSON: Well, you go right across the river. New York had the same opportunity as New Jersey, and there isn't an equitable distribution of resources.
So primarily, the districts are funded on property-based funding.
CONAN: Property taxes?
Mr. JACKSON: Property taxes, absolutely. We don't see that a significant portion of the students who are failing have access to early childhood education or highly effective teachers. And we find that, as you look at the national data, only nine percent of New York black male eighth-graders are proficient or above in eighth-grade reading.
CONAN: And does your study indicate whether this trend is going up, whether 47 percent is actually an improvement, or whether it's getting worse?
Mr. JACKSON: It actually indicates that we're headed in the wrong direction. Two years ago, when we published this report, the graduation rate nationally was 48 percent. Now, it's only one percentage point - it's only a one-percentage-point difference, but what it indicates is we're not headed in the right direction at a time when two-thirds of all new jobs will require some level of college attainment.
CONAN: Yet you title your report "Yes You Can" in an echo of President Obama's campaign message of hope. What gives you hope here?
Mr. JACKSON: Well, what gives us hope is the fact that Harlem Children Zone at the community level shows that it can be done. New Jersey at the state level shows that it can be done. So we have to go beyond the school-by-school approaches, highlighting individual schools in high-poverty, high-minority areas that are doing well.
I think it's great that that's occurring, but we've always been able to do that. But what we need now are systemic solutions: education thousands, not hundreds.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. And let's start with John(ph), and John's with us from Denver.
JOHN (Caller): Hi, I'm glad we're doing this topic, and I really wanted to call about this. I went to the University of Northern Colorado and got my bachelor's degree, and it's funny that Greeley, this small cow town, small university, offered African-American studies, Africana Studies, as a bachelor's degree program.
And I graduated from high school in a different area. It was about a 2.3 GPA, you know, just a little below average but enough to graduate. But then when I got into college and actually declared Africana Studies as my major, I really excelled and ended up graduating with my bachelor's, with like a 3.3 GPA.
And I wanted to really just speak to the importance of cultural education, and it was really nonexistent in my K-through-12 public school district that I went to, and I think if they were able to maybe start forming curriculums that are more culturally based around the African-American experience, I think they would really see gains in the graduation rates on a K-through-12 level.
CONAN: And John, where'd you go to K-through-12, in Denver?
JOHN: Yeah, actually Aurora, which is a suburb southeast of Denver, Smoky Hill High School, and it was amazing. There was a teacher by the name of Ms. Schneider(ph) who incorporated a minority lit class, and she had to fight for, like, 10, 15 years to get it even on the curriculum.
She could only get it as an elective, not as a mandatory class, but, you know, when we talked about the Jazz Age and the Black Renaissance literature and the writers, and I started reading people like Langston Hughes and Ralph Ellison, I mean, it totally, like, opened my mind up, and it totally restructured my thinking.
Like, you know, a lot of young black males probably think we have no history or are not familiar with much history outside of the news and things.
JOHN: So when I saw this oh, go ahead, go ahead.
CONAN: No, I was just going to say I'm not sure that ignorance of history is limited to young black males. But in any case, John Jackson, does John's experience speak to anything that you found in your survey?
Mr. JACKSON: Well, I actually think it's important to find ways to engage young black males in reading, engage them in mathematics, because these are the skills that they're going to need to be successful.
It's also important that we give them the tools by which they can do their own deeper investigations because what we're finding out, even in places where they are performing well, whether there's a cultural history class or not, they are engaged at students, they have the resources needed to learn, and they produce the outcomes.
CONAN: John, you got a job?
JOHN: Yeah, actually, it's funny. I don't work in anything related to my degree program. But I work in construction. I'm a roofer. I work in roofing. But, you know, I totally had plans.
I had you know, a big dreamer out of college, thought I was going to change the world and incorporate, you know, minority history as, like, mandatory in all K-through-12 programs throughout the nation, but that dream.
CONAN: Hey, John...
JOHN: Go ahead.
CONAN: I'm just saying there's plenty of time left. Go with those dreams.
JOHN: Definitely, definitely.
CONAN: All right, bye.
CONAN: Let's get another voice in on the conversation. Joining us is David Schiarra, executive director of the Education Law Center. We heard earlier, about relative success in New Jersey.
The ELC originally brought the landmark case Abbott v. Burke to the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1998. The court mandated quality standards for preschool and full-day kindergarten in certain troubled districts. And Mr. Schiarra now leads advocacy for funding and implementation of those standards in the Abbott districts, as they're known, and he joins us from the studios of member station WBGO in Newark. Nice to have you with us today.
Mr. DAVID SCHIARRA (Executive Director, Education Law Center): Glad to be here.
CONAN: And the Abbott program affects preschool and kindergarten. How does that affect outcomes in high school?
Mr. SCHIARRA: Well, it's actually more than that. So the Abbott effort really started about 12 years ago, and it's an extraordinary effort, Neal, because we really dealt with a lot of what John talked about, which was the fundamentals.
Sparked by the court, the state really had to step up to the plate and increase the level of resources in our high-poverty, high-minority schools and districts throughout the state.
And as you know, in New Jersey, we have lots of older cities that have significant numbers of low-income students and students of color in our public schools, such as Newark and Camden and Paterson.
So we started out with adequate funding based on student need. But more importantly, the court really wanted the state to come up with a program that would drive that funding to programs and initiatives where research showed we had a good chance of success.
So it started out with high-quality early education for threes and fours. We've built in New Jersey, over 10 years, one of the best preschool programs in the United States. There are now 42,000 children in our cities, threes and fours, going to well-planned, high-quality preschool programs.
But it didn't start there. It went into the elementary schools, focusing on early literacy, intensive early literacy and language arts and mathematics, and it went into the high schools, although we've stalled out a little bit recently in the last couple of years, the state has sort of pulled back.
But there was we moved into the high schools to do school redesign, to try to get the schools to be more personal for our students, to do things like extended learning time and extended day - school redesign, as I mentioned, and other sort of reform initiatives in our middle and high schools.
So it's not about at one level, it's about at all levels - pre-K to 12 - and it's about making sure that the fundamentals are in place, that the schools have adequate resources to provide a rich and rigorous curriculum for all students and that the resources to deliver that curriculum are deployed in an effective way in our schools and sustained over time.
CONAN: And as opposed to the graduation rate for black males in New York, 25 percent statewide, well, it's, what, 65 percent in New Jersey?
Mr. SCHIARRA: It's about that, and in a number of our higher-poverty urban districts with lots of black students, African-American students, the rates are higher. We have good rates in a number of our largely Hispanic districts, as well.
So it's we're making progress. Now, you know, we still have a ways to go, and I don't think anyone should be...
CONAN: Happy with 65 percent.
Mr. SCHIARRA: Happy with that. We've got to do better. But what New Jersey tells us is that we've got to get back to the fundamentals in terms of improving our public schools in high-poverty districts and locations where we have very large numbers of low-income students and students of color.
We've got make sure those schools are adequately resourced, and then we have to put into place clear frameworks for how to use that money effectively and sustain the effort over time. This has to be about not just an individual school, or the Harlem Children Zone, this has got to be about all schools and all children.
CONAN: And when we come back in just a minute, we're going to also talk about mechanisms to get that done. Maybe other states won't need court orders.
David Schiarra, stay with us. John Jackson also is going to stay with us, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation. We're talking about the dropout rate for African-American males in high school. Forty-seven percent graduate nationwide. It's much worse in some states like New York, as we just heard. It's a lot better in places like New Jersey.
What's your story? If you have direct experience with this as a teacher, a student, a parent, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
The Schott Foundation's new report on young black men in public education comes to what they call a nightmarish conclusion: The American education system is systematically failing black males.
If you'd like to read the entire report, there's a link to it at our website. You can go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
We're talking about the report this hour, looking at where things are the worst. In a moment, we'll talk about Detroit and where some successes are reported, at least relative success, like New Jersey.
We want to hear your stories. Teachers, students, parents: Why do so many male blacks drop out of high school? How do we turn that around? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com.
Our guests are John Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation, with us from MIT in Cambridge, and David Schiarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which brought a lawsuit in New Jersey, which helped institute resource allocations that helped that state achieve a 65 percent graduation rate for African-American males.
And David Schiarra, I wanted to ask you, that's a result of a court order. Given the relative success of New Jersey, can you convince other states to devote these kinds of resources short of a court case?
Mr. SCHIARRA: Well, that's unfortunate in the way that we had to do it through the courts. I mean, the problem in the country is that we just don't have the will in the state capitals in our states.
I think, you know, we have, in the United States, we don't have a national right to education like other developed countries. The states run our educational systems, and they control the financing and the resources, and they're ultimately responsible for the education of their children.
And so part of the problem that we're dealing with here underneath this report is that we've got, state-by-state, where state legislators and state policymakers are simply not stepping up to the plate in order to ensure that particularly higher poverty schools or schools that serve large numbers of black students and children of color have the resources that they need. That really is there - the opportunity to get kids into school early because we know those kids are starting out at kindergarten, 18 months or two years behind their suburban peers, and other similar measures.
So sometimes the courts have to step in. In New Jersey, they did that, but they really shouldn't have to, and even if the court steps in, Neal, I would say that in New Jersey, the legislature had to step up to the plate.
The court sort of set this in motion, but it was really up to the executive branch and the legislative branches of government in our state to say look, what the court is asking us to do is right, it's just, it's equitable. We have to do that for the future of our state and our economy, let's step up to the plate and get it done.
CONAN: And New Jersey is no exception to the governmental crises around the country. Indeed, it's one of the leading examples. Is the funding continuing to come?
Mr. SCHIARRA: Well, that's the challenge. I mean, because I think the challenge is systemic reform, adequately resourced, sustained over time. The problem we've had with a lot of reform efforts in the United States is that they start out, and after a year or two, there's a little bit of funding put in, and then everybody forgets about it and moves on.
So we've got to get to a point where we're really talking about sustaining adequate resources over time, but more importantly that we're putting into place mechanisms to ensure the effective use of those resources sustained over time. That's very difficult in state government because, you know, of the political cycle, the economic downturns.
So we have a real job to engage the public in understanding that they've got to make sure, in good times and bad, that there is a significant investment in our educational system, particularly in kids who are disadvantaged and in poor communities, and they have to and we have to ask them to step up to the plate to make sure that that priority is met. It's not easy.
CONAN: David Schiarra, good luck to you. Thanks very much for your time today.
Mr. SCHIARRA: My pleasure.
CONAN: David Schiarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, a watchdog for the funding and implementation of the Abbott Preschool Program and other Abbott programs in the state of New Jersey.
Still with us, John Jackson, and let's see if we can get another caller on the line. Let's go with Monica(ph), Monica with us from Minneapolis.
MONICA (Caller): Oh, hi, thank you so much for taking my call.
MONICA: We send our child to school. We live in Minneapolis. But the plan is to pull her out when she approaches high school because we don't think that the classes are overcrowded, and there's just - it's just kind of crazy.
And our friends who live in the most distressed places also, we have the plan for similar reasons, because we can't afford the alternative to public schools, and home is just a safer, better, richer option, (unintelligible).
MONICA: And I'm just wondering how making the decision in high school to home school is impacting those statistics because I could view a high dropout rate of African-American males as a good thing because schools aren't that great.
CONAN: John Jackson, is there any way to measure homeschooling as a factor in this?
Mr. JACKSON: Yes, we haven't seen a significant increase in African-American parents homeschooling as compared by these data. Now, there is an increase, but it's not statistically significant enough to explain why only 47 percent of black males are graduating nationally.
CONAN: Okay. Monica, good luck. I know that's a daunting prospect. Oh, I think Monica's left us. Anyway, we thank her for her call. Let's go next to Jennifer(ph), Jennifer with us from Birmingham.
JENNIFER (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to say I taught in Louisiana schools, in Baton Rouge, and I found that the LEAP test that the children are having to take at fourth grade is a big problem because it's holding them back for three years in a row.
If they don't pass the LEAP test, they don't pass fourth grade. So here you've got an 11- or 12-year-old in fourth grade. Well, then they go to middle school, they're going to be driving in eighth grade. They're not going to want to go to school because they're not with their peers anymore.
CONAN: I'm guessing that LEAP stands for something like Louisiana Education Achievement Program, something like that?
JENNIFER: Yes, yes.
JENNIFER: And it's repeated in eighth grade. So they have two opportunities to, you know, not be with their group. I think maybe a solution would be possibly a fourth-grade A, a fourth-grade B, a fourth-grade C, and then a fifth-grade A, B, C, D, so forth so that they do get to progress through the grades, you know.
CONAN: Yet, Jennifer, I'm sure you know that the whole idea of social promotion, if they can't achieve at a fourth-grade level, why should they go on to fifth grade?
JENNIFER: Right, and after three years, they do get pushed on, except for they go straight to sixth. So in essence, they skip fifth.
CONAN: I see.
JENNIFER: They don't even go to fifth, yeah.
CONAN: John Jackson, is there any indication that the tests, and Jennifer's hardly alone, or talking about Louisiana, there's a lot of states like that.
Mr. JACKSON: Yeah. There are a number of states that have tests, which serve as barriers for promotion but also tests that are not adequately used. So if you look at the New York test, there are a number of tests that they put in place, but at the end result of those tests, it's not clear that the students are any more highly prepared than students in New Jersey.
There's one national assessment test that we have right now, and it's called NAEP, and we often look at the eighth-grade proficiency level in reading. So even those students that our caller was talking about in Louisiana, who are promoted, in Louisiana right now, only eight percent of black male eighth-graders are proficient in eighth-grade reading.
Now, these students won't be competitive at the global level, let alone be able to compete domestically, and that's where this is really a challenge on our nation. It's challenging our nation to ask the question: Are we going to be a union? And if so, is education a civil right that should be protected to all students regardless of where they're born?
CONAN: Okay. Jennifer, thanks very much, appreciate the phone call.
JENNIFER: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Noah Ovshinsky is education reporter for our member station in Detroit, WDET, and he joins us from their studios. Nice to have you with us today.
NOAH OVSHINSKY: Thanks, Neal, good to be here.
CONAN: And the Detroit schools described as, some places, as dropout factories. Is that unfair?
OVSHINSKY: It depends on who you talk to. Arne Duncan, who is the current secretary of education, has called Detroit ground zero for education reform.
We were just speaking about NAEP tests just a moment ago on the show, and that's sort of a crucial thing because here in Detroit, and I think it actually made headlines nationwide, in late December, it was revealed that Detroit scored the lowest in the nation in math scores, in fact the worst in the history of the test.
Roughly 69 percent of fourth-graders scored below a basic level, and 77 percent of eighth-graders scored below a basic level in math.
CONAN: According to this report, just 27 percent of black males in Detroit graduate high school. Where does that leave the other 73 percent?
OVSHINSKY: Well, you know, in Detroit, it's an incredibly complicated issue because there are a lot of variables, both the variables that we've talked about here on the show, one being obviously Detroit being an impoverished area, but also just in general the bad economy and also the way schools are funded here in the state.
The district has seen really a hemorrhaging of students in the last, well, 20 years, I'd say. The district loses about 10,000 students a year to charter schools and to neighboring districts. And here in Detroit, students are funded on a per-pupil basis.
So every year, the district is seeing huge declines in per-pupil funding, money that can be used in the classroom.
CONAN: So when you talk about the everybody understands the scale of the problem, which is enormous in a place like Detroit. Is there any systematic effort to say look at New Jersey, they're doing better, can we do that?
OVSHINSKY: Yeah, I mean, I think the NAEP test we talked about was a huge wake-up call for the city not only for policymakers but just for the people on the street. Not long after those results and later on the results that were released in the reading tests, which were similar in nature, there was a creation of a reading corps of volunteers. Thousands of volunteers have since entered the schools to volunteer in a reading corps, which - what they're calling.
And DPS also has an emergency financial manager, which was put in place by the governor a little more than a year ago, and he's put in place - him and his team have put in place a five-year plan to improve academics in the city, more specifically improve reading in the early levels. Of course, evidence - you know, research suggests that if you read better, you're going to perform better...
OVSHINSKY: ...across disciplines. Those math scores, I would imagine, would increase if literacy increases in those earlier grades. So a lot more effort is being made on those core courses. In fact, a part of this program that Robert Bobb, who's this emergency financial manager, one of the things he's doing is requiring that all students take at least 120 minutes a day of instruction in math and reading, which from what I understand is a dramatic increase over past years.
CONAN: Let's see if we get another caller on the line. This is Norm(ph), and Norm is with us from Titusville in Florida.
NORM (Caller): Right. How are you doing?
NORM: Well, I'm a product of Detroit Public Schools. In fact, I went to Mumford High School, and it was a great school, a great school. And I went on - all my brothers - I have six brothers. All of us went to college. I went on to finish pharmacy and also went to, in fact, the University of Michigan with dental school.
I think your guest from Detroit is missing a few points, one in which about 20 years ago, citizens of Detroit saw that there were failures within the Detroit Public Schools, particularly with African-American males. They came up with the African-American male academy, and that was working. And one of my friends who ran that school was a guy named Ray Johnson(ph).
Shortly after that, it was opposed by the National Association of Women. And they went to federal court, and they defeated the program. Now, when we fast-forwarded 20 years later, you know, we see the disaster. When I went to Detroit schools, they've eliminated - we had instrumental music programs. We had woodshop programs. We had the home economic program. We had all-city band. I was in the (unintelligible) marching band as a result of that.
You know, all these programs have been just eliminated. We had photography. That's gone. Wood - metal shops, those are all gone. And so you want to know why the schools are in such an embarrassing shape right now, I mean, look what's happened. You can't train any pharmacists or dentists or people to be attorneys or even scientists when you've eliminated all the science courses, the greenhouses, the, you don't - your water doesn't work at Mumford High School, even in the science lab. I mean, come on, what do you expect that's to happen? The other thing that's happened...
CONAN: I don't mean to interrupt, I just want to get a response from Noah Ovshinsky.
OVSHINSKY: Yeah, I was going to say I think that partially speaks to the funding issue that I was talking about. Arts programs and other extracurricular activities, you know, it's fair to say I think are under assault in Detroit right now. And that's - part of that is due to the funding crisis in Michigan and, in particular, the funding crisis in Detroit. I will say that Robert Bobb with the money that he has, is trying to replicate the successful programs that do exist. And I don't want to paint with an overly broad, you know, an overly broad brush, there are successful schools - many successful schools in many grades in DPS, and I think there's an effort right now to replicate those schools. And I think that's the approach that the current administration is taking.
CONAN: Norm, quickly.
NORM: Okay. The problem was is that in Detroit, all schools were good. Now, in Detroit, the only two schools - three high schools that are left that can give any kind of education is Renaissance, Cass Tech and a private school, Detroit Gesu. Now when you go to a country like poverty is not the issue. When you go to a country like Cuba or Zimbabwe or the Congo where they have immense poverty, they still outshine all of the American schools in their public - in their education. You know, so it's not - it's just...
NORM: ...these schools are designed to fail, and the kids are being programmed to fail.
CONAN: Norm, thank you very much for the phone call. Appreciate it. And, Noah Ovshinsky, thanks very much for your time today.
CONAN: Noah Ovshinsky, education reporter for WDET in Detroit. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And I wonder, John Jackson, that point that just came in, is poverty really the reason? Is it just lack of resources?
Dr. JACKSON: I think it's, number one, ensuring that the resources that are available are being targeted towards what we know works - access to early education, highly effective teacher, college-bound curricula. Second, I think there is a need for a deeper level of investment, especially in states that are economically depressed, like Michigan and many of the Southern states.
You know, there are periods where a union is - our union has been tested. The Civil War is one of them, the 1930s, during the Depression, the 1950s and '60s, during the civil - the height of the civil rights movement. This is another period. And the question that's being asked on behalf of children: Are we going to remain a union, or will students receive an opportunity to learn based on where they're located and based on their ZIP codes?
CONAN: And this is a very interesting point. Christopher(ph) in Boston emails: I grew up in the rural Northeast Kingdom in Vermont. True, it was too small for me to be cast aside, as the report suggested. However, I did graduate at the bottom of my high school class, about 100 of 110. As poorly as I did, I never even took the SATs. Interestingly, as I left my small town and explored the world via the military I realized I really like to learn, and I was good at it.
After leaving the military, I went on to earn a bachelor's, a law degree, and I'm about to finish up my interdisciplinary Ph.D. This study has me really thinking about where I want to raise my biracial children. My head is really spinning. Do I go where the resources and cultural diversity are, or do I go where my kid can't be cast aside?
Any advice for him, John?
Dr. JACKSON: Well, number one, I think you have to go where you believe that your family can flourish, and there is a value to diversity. We found that regardless of race or ethnicity, all children learn in diverse environments. So that's a goal. But our goal is also to ensure that wherever a parent - or a child is raised, there is a neighborhood school that that child can attend that will provide the child a fair and substantive opportunity to learn.
CONAN: I understand that's the goal, but if you had a choice to make, where would you raise your children?
Dr. JACKSON: I think I would raise my child in a diverse environment, because I think the society that we live in today is increasingly diverse. You know, this is the first year where less than 50 percent of the entering kindergarten class will be white. So you've got to begin to prepare - we've got to begin to prepare our children to be educated in places where they can flourish in society.
CONAN: John Jackson, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.
Dr. JACKSON: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: John Jackson, president and CEO of The Schott Foundation for Public Education, with us today from the studios at MIT in - excuse me - it's John Jackson is president - yes, Schott Foundation. MIT in Cambridge was where he was talking to us from, and we thank the studio for their efforts today as well.
Coming up, gun smoke and leather on the Opinion Page. Billy the Kid is one of our most beloved criminals, so much that Governor Bill Richardson is mulling a pardon for the long-dead antihero. We'll hear the argument against the pardon. That's coming up next. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
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