chike-akua_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

When the Schott Foundation for Public Education released its report on black male graduation rates, Palm Beach County school officials were stunned.

The report revealed that not even a quarter of the black males in the school district graduated with their class in the 2007-08 school year.

Only 22 percent of black males graduated, putting Palm Beach County among the worst five school districts in the nation in graduating black males in districts with an enrollment of 10,000 or more black males.

“Yes We Can: the 2010 Schott 50 State Report on Black Males in Public Education,” released in August, concluded that the entire state, and South Florida specifically, is ailing its black males educationally.

Miami-Dade narrowly escaped the five worst performing districts, with a 27 percent graduation rate. Broward County wasn’t as bad, with a 39 percent graduation rate, but it was still below the national average of 47 percent.

According to the report, 60 to 80 percent of black males in Florida’s largest school districts do not graduate with their classes and that underscores the need for a wake-up call in educating black males, the report says. Palm Beach County School Superintendent Art Johnson says he is answering that call.
Johnson has created an African American Male Task Force to come up with answers to deal with the grim statistics facing his district.

“We have known for some time that our African American students are not achieving at rates we know they can achieve and are achieving in our own schools and nationwide,” Johnson said.  The work of the task force will help us identify specifically what is working in Palm Beach County and nationwide and speed up the implementation of those proven strategies.”

Gloria Crutchfield, director of the district’s Secondary Curriculum Department, was tapped to lead the task force, taking to the job a record for turning students around. While she served as principal of Suncoast High in Riviera Beach, Newsweek magazine ranked the school number three in the country  in 2007-2008.

The school was not ranked in the top 100 before she became principal. Under her, it was ranked seventh in the country in 2005-2006, and fifth in 2006-2007.

“I was shocked when I read the report,” Crutchfield said. “However, I gave credence to the report because it did highlight a crisis that we know we’re having. We do know that they are issues we need to deal with.”

Crutchfield sat on a national panel last month on Oct. 22, along with John H. Jackson, President/CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education and others who convened to discuss black male achievement.

Crutchfield’s strategy is to take a comprehensive approach to solving the problem. Her task force comprises students, parents, teachers, administrators, community members, business owners and school district personnel. The goal is to create an action plan and begin its implementation.

The task force is looking at issues such as how black males learn, how to teach them and even brain research. “Everything,” Crutchfield said. “We’re looking for best practices and strategies. It’s systemic. It took time to get to this crisis and it’s going to take time to come out.” But she is expecting to see some results as early as 2011.

Educational consultant Chike Akua has been asked for his input and for training methods.  Akua has a reputation for boosting the achievement of African-American students and students labeled “at-risk” for dropping out. He gave the keynote speech at a graduation symposium in October that the task force sponsored and he has trained between 50 and 60 Palm Beach teachers on how to infuse an African-American curriculum into their lessons,
something that he says is vital to help them achieve. He is slated to lead another training session in 2011.

Akua travels to some 30 cities each year to teach parents, students and educators how to close the achievement gap. He said he recommends a three-pronged approach for school districts facing the crisis that Palm Beach County is in.

First, he says, educators must change their mentality about black males. “Many teachers and administrators come with the assumption that black males are already not going to achieve. We must not make assumptions that our children are going to fail,” he said in a telephone interview.

Secondly, he says, teachers must change their method of teaching black males because many don’t know the strategies that work for them.

Thirdly, teachers must change their materials because, he says, many are using textbooks that “miseducate” black students. “We have to have materials that speak to who our children are, who our children were and who our children can become.

“We need a celebration of the greatness of our culture. But, instead, what we find often in the mainstream is a celebration of the worst of our culture.”

Joseph Lee, at 39, is principal of William T. Dwyer High, one of Palm Beach County’s largest high schools and is a task force member. Many young black boys have dreams of playing professional sports and, as a stand-out football player in high school, he, too, once had such aspirations. But the odds of reaching that level, he points out, are very slim, so education must be stressed.

As the son of a former college president, he was constantly told since he was 3 that he would go to college. He went on to earn a double major in Communications and Criminology at Florida A&M University and a master’s and a doctorate in Educational Leadership,  at Nova Southeastern University.
“It’s important for the kids to see that someone who looks like me can run a comprehensive high school,” said Lee, who says his students do tell him they want to be like him.  He knows he is setting an example for all students, but particularly for young black males.

But one problem facing black boys today, Lee says, is lack of early intervention. “Mentorship should start as early as 2 years old,” he said. “Third and fourth grade is too late.”

What the report said:

• 22 percent of black males graduate from, Palm Beach County public schools, putting the county among the worst five school districts in the nation in graduating black males in districts with an enrollment of 10,000 or more black males.
• Miami-Dade has a graduation rate of 27 percent.
• Broward County’s graduation rate is 39 percent.
• 60 to 80 percent of black males in Florida’s largest school districts do not graduate with their classes.
• The national average graduation rate for black males is 47 percent.

Source:  “Yes We Can: the 2010 Schott 50 State Report on Black Males in Public Education”

WHAT: Palm Beach County Schools African American Male Task Force meeting
WHEN: 3 p.m.-4:30 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 30
WHERE: Board Room, Main School Board Office, 3300 Forest Hill Blvd., West Palm Beach.