WEST PALM BEACH — As controversy persists over how to boost the less than 50 percent graduation rate for young black males in Palm Beach County public schools, the district is set to host another of its “institutes” focusing on the issue.

The African, African-American, Caribbean Summer Institute, scheduled for June 16-20 in West Palm Beach, which has been held for the past 20 years, will teach educators and the community strategies for increasing the graduation rate.

John Robert Browne II, an educator, lecturer and author of Walking the Equity Talk, who has taught extensively on the subject, will give the keynote address.

Other speakers will include Yaba Blay, an Africana Studies scholar who was a panelist on broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien’s television series Black in America.

The institute’s  theme is “Removing Structural Barriers to Literacy: Strategies to Identify and Diminish Institutional Bias in Educ“The purpose of the institute is to bring educators and the community together to learn about our history and infusion and to learn what we can do to improve student achievement for black students and particularly for black males,” said Myra Leavy-Bazemore, manager of the school district’s Office of African, African-American, Latino and Gender Studies.

The county’s black male graduation rate is currently 47.9 percent. Leavy-Bazemore said in an interview that problems in teaching black male students are not unique to Palm Beach County, adding, “but there is a problem reaching our black males in the teaching/learning exchange.”

She said Browne’s specialty is producing an environment that is conducive to learning. He also discusses institutional biases facing black male students and explores them with educators.

Her office also recently partnered with the White House for its “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative launched earlier this year by President Barack Obama.

Leavy-Bazemore said she has attended seminars in Miami and Atlanta on the subject and will be going next to Pennsylvania.
“The Superintendent and staff are working to turn the tide when it comes to black males in the district,” she said.

As an example, she points to the work of the “Superintendent’s Graduation Task Force for Black Male Students,” whose 270 members, she said, are highly committed to that goal.

The district convened the task force in 2010  but it went into a lull until School Superintendent E. Wayne Gent revived it when he took office and it re-convened in January.

The task force is divided into action teams that focus on areas such as literacy, drop-out prevention, recruitment of black male teachers and parental involvement.

But Ron Leonard, president of the Black Educators Caucus of Palm Beach County, says the task force is falling short of solving the problem.

“I’m still concerned about some things, namely the achievement gap,” said Leonard, who spent 38 years as the district’s career educator. “And, with African-American males, are we preparing them for a well-rounded life? I don’t think the Black

Male Task Force is getting it done. There are some things they’re doing right but I still have some concerns.” “We knew the career path of every student. Students need to be given a career path set up before the ninth grade. Everyone is not going to college. I don’t see this tracking being done,” Leonard said. “Are we training them to some extent? Perhaps, but it’s not well-rounded. Somewhat, it’s being done, but not completely to my satisfaction. I would like to see students doing ‘shadowing’ and more career days. It’s a missing link today. I know it is.”

Leonard and his caucus have hosted a series of town hall meetings, with Gent in attendance, to address the education of black students but few parents have attended. He said he’s trying hard to get the word out about the meetings, especially since the superintendent has made himself available to the community. His next town hall meeting will be in Riviera Beach, most likely in the fall, he said.

“I’m going to strategize over the summer in getting a better community response. I’ll look at what I can do better to spread the word. But I will be asking parents, ‘Are you concerned?’” he said.  Leonard recently brought to the area Becky Pringle, secretary of the National Education Association (NEA), which has 3.4 million members nationwide. He is hoping to bring her back next year.

“Of all the civil rights for which we have fought, the right to learn is the most fundamental,” Pringle told  an audience of several hundred at the Black Educator’s Caucus annual breakfast last month. “We are now in the fight of our lives to ensure our students have the access and the opportunity to be successful.”