African-American Boys in Crisis

Ed Gordon continues a discussion about young black males with Rosa Smith, president and CEO of The Schott Foundation for Public Education, and Dr. James Comer, a child psychiatrist at Yale University and author of Leave No Child Behind: Preparing Today's Youth for Tomorrow's World.

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ED GORDON, host:

Increasing the enrollment numbers for African-American males at college campuses is especially daunting, considering that in many metro areas, the high school drop out rate for black boys is 50 percent. That according to recently published reports in the American School Board Journal. Rosa Smith authored some of those studies, and continues to explore this issue as president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education. She joins us via phone from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the organization is based.

Also on the line with us, James Comer, a child psychiatrist at Yale University. Dr. Comer heads the Comer School Development Program, which he founded in 1968. His latest book is titled Leave No Child Behind: Preparing Today's Youth for Tomorrow's World, and he joins us from New Haven, Connecticut. I thank you both for joining us.

Dr. Comer, let me start with you. You've been doing this for a number of years, now. What is the difference that you have associated with the decline in boys finding education important in their lives?

Dr. JAMES COMER (Child Psychiatrist): We see the problem among blacks more, because black males are more vulnerable. But I think it's the, you know, the first time in the history of the world that you've really needed an education to be able to work, and have it dubbed success. And the change in the nature of work, one, the physical strength is no longer a great advantage for males, and we have a service and information age where in many ways, it favors girls or women. And the kind of traits that they have, males that would have dropped out of school and still been successful, are now in school. But the school has not made an adjustment to make it possible for them to be successful.

GORDON: Rosa Smith, when we look at the numbers, black boys make up about 8.6 percent of the nation's public school students, this in the year 2000/2001, yet they comprise 41 percent of the special education population. We mentioned earlier, in many urban areas, well over 50 percent of them do not graduate in 13 states; between 30 and 40 percent of the black male students graduated on time. When we look at these numbers, how did we allow it to get to this point?

Ms. ROSA SMITH (President and CEO, Schott Foundation): Let me put this in the context that, I think, that public education in America is mediocre at best. We only graduate about 67, 69 percent of all of our children. I would agree with Dr. Comer that it is about boys in general. But if it's a crisis for our white male students than for our black male students, it is what I often call educational genocide.

GORDON: Mr. Comer, when you hear the idea of No Child Left Behind from the Bush administration, many people say it's a commendable idea. They don't know whether the execution is correct in helping. We have left a generation behind, many think, particularly, again, among males, and at the top of that list would be African-American boys. Can we in fact save any of these children?

Dr. COMER: Well, sure. We've just finished looking at the results of a school district that had 41% of students proficient, 43% in reading and math, and in five years, they were 93% to 98% efficient, and that was done by creating a culture that focused on the development of the children. That requires a change in the way we prepare teachers and administrators who think about more than raising test scores, which is the problem with No Child Left Behind.

In my own book, Leave No Child Behind, we talked about creating a culture that allows all of the adults to support the development of the children. The children themselves promote their own development, and as a result we've gotten dramatic improvement.

Ms. SMITH: One of the things I think is problematic is that too many of the people who work with black male students cannot imagine them to greatness, so it gets in the way that they think about our kids, and they set expectations.

Dr. COMER: I agree with that, and yet I've seen teachers and administrators just like that involved in a program to change the culture of the schools in which their attitudes, their ideas, their understanding changes.

GORDON: How realistic is that in terms of the real world and trying to make change, Rosa Smith? When I know when you were Superintendent in Columbus, Ohio and tried to close a dysfunctional school, you received a lot of flack for that.

Ms. SMITH: I did. You've done your homework. Well, I think this is where, on the part of many people we have to have courageous leadership. People are going to have to stand up and be open to acknowledging the truth and then get busy about doing the things that Dr. Comer and others talk about to bring about change in the environment.

And at the school that you mentioned, at the end of the day, after all of that flack, we decided we would keep it open and not disperse children all over the city, but that we would totally restructure that school. And we actually, which often doesn't, sometimes doesn't happen, but we placed our best adults at that school, an extraordinary principal committed to all children learning, gave that person an opportunity to select teachers who actually wanted to be in this school where nobody wanted to go, and over time it made a difference.

But it does call for making difficult choices, being courageous, using best practice and then staying the course so that everybody can begin to experience what success is and then building on that.

GORDON: All right, Rosa Smith, president and CEO of The Schott Foundation for Public Education, and James Comer, founder of the Comer School Development Program at Yale University. I thank you both for being with us.

Ms. SMITH: Thank you.

Dr. COMER: Thank you.

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