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Solving the Black Male School Achievement Puzzle

Closing the African American achievement gap is the life’s work of Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu. Founder of a company focused on helping parents and educators address the educational crisis facing black children, he’s written 32 books including Black Students/ Middle Class Teachers, Keeping Black Boys Out of Special Education and Reducing the Black Male Drop Out Rate. I caught up with Dr. Kunjufu to discuss why he believes the KIPP model (an innovative national network of charter schools), Afrocentric schools, and single gender schools are the keys to a high quality educational experience for African American children.

Chicago’s Urban Prep Charter School made national news with its announcement that 100% of its black male seniors have been accepted to college. Are they proof that the single gender model works?

Compare and contrast Urban Prep and other schools. There are other single gender classrooms at those other schools too. Their single gender classrooms are called special education, remedial reading, the principal’s office, getting ready for suspension, and students dropping out.

My major concern is with males and reading. It’s the precursor for special education and prison. 80% of the children in special ed are there because of a reading deficiency. 82% of inmates are illiterate, so if we simply teach black boys how to read we have a chance to keep them out of special education and jail.

Is focusing on African American males a priority for school districts?

Since 1954 there’s been a 66% decline in African American teachers. Fifty years ago, we had African American educators leading the charge for the education of African American children. Presently, 83% of America’s teachers are white and female. Only 6% are African American and only 1% are African American male.

What about organizations like Teach For America? Their teachers are predominately white, middle class, and women – some don’t get results with African American children, but many do.

The thing with them is that there’s a 40% turnover of their teachers within five years.

They say they’re achieving great results.

For one to two years.

Still, many believe that organizations like Teach For America and KIPP are the answer.

I’m an advocate of KIPP because of their longer school day. But, there are many teachers who have been unable to maintain the rigor of KIPP. What’s unfortunate is when you have children who are black, poor, and from single-parent homes where the parents lack a college degree, it does require a greater effort. There are individual principals and individual teachers doing a great job. For the majority of teachers, especially white females who have their own families and live in a different neighborhood, this is simply a career or job.

You can’t hire black teachers if you have such a small number of African Americans going to and graduating from college in the first place, right?

There’s the program Call Me Mister in about seven Southern states. It’s designed to give African American males desirous of majoring in education grants and scholarships, bring people like me in to mentor and encourage them. Can you imagine if we had a Call Me Mister program in every state so that principals had a pool of African American males to draw upon?

People might say that’s reverse racism. A teacher’s color shouldn’t matter.

That’s a very sensitive issue and I’m spending three days a week nationwide primarily working with white female teachers because the future of black children lies in their hands. There are a large number of sincere white females that realize it’s not the race of the teacher or the gender of the teacher– it’s their expectations and time on task. That doesn’t negate the fact that even a white teacher who’s a master teacher needs to invite in black role models to motivate the students.

Here’s the real concern– large numbers of teachers believe the reason for the low performance of large numbers of African American children is their race, their income, the number of parents in the home. The KIPP model says that because the kids are black, low-income, from a single parent home where the parent lacks the college degree, these children need more time on task, not less. Greater expectations, not less.

What schools are exemplary for educating African American children?

As far as Afrocentric schools, if you look at Betty Shabazz school in Chicago, the African Centered Campus in Kansas City– at some of these schools the children were at the 30th percentile on the state exam. The curriculum was infused with Afrocentricity, and these same children then scored at the 70-80th percentile. Remember, the state exam is still Eurocentric. Columbus is still discovering America, Lincoln is still freeing the slaves, and Egypt is still in the Middle East, but because the children are now more confident in their history and their culture, you see an increase in their scores.

With single gender schools– Urban Prep in Chicago or the Eagle Academy in New York– there’s a dropout rate in New York City for black males of almost 65%.  At Eagle Academy, the dropout rate is less than 10%. The only variable to change is the single gender school.

Chicago’s Fenger High School was in the national news nonstop last fall after the murder of Derrion Albert– have they approached you and asked you for help?

No, they haven’t, but to change things at Fenger all they’d have to do is implement one of these three models: the KIPP model, the Afrocentric model or the single gender model, and then Fenger would turn around.

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