Introduction

America has more people in prison than any other industrialized nation in the world. Of those imprisoned, African-American males are the dominant cultural group. In fact, some studies indicate that African American males are struggling with academics across the country at alarming rates. Consider the following statistics:

Three-quarters of state prison inmates are dropouts, as are 59% of federal inmates. In fact, dropouts are 3.5 times more likely than high school graduates to be incarcerated in their lifetime. African American men are disproportionately incarcerated. Of all African American male dropouts in their early 30s, 52% have been imprisoned. 90% of the 11,000 youth in adult detention facilities have no more than a 9th grade education. (http://www.aypf.org/publications/WhateverItTakes/WIT_nineseconds.pdf)

Nationally, about 71 percent of all students graduate from high school on time with a regular diploma, but barely half of African American and Hispanic students earn diplomas with their peers. In many states the difference between white and minority graduation rates is stunning; in several cases there is a gap of as many as 40 or 50 percentage points. (http://www.all4ed.org/files/GraduationRates_FactSheet.pdf)

A new study from the Justice Policy Institute (http://www.justicepolicy.org), a Washington, DC-based think-tank that advocates for alternatives to prison, has found that after two decades of harsh criminal justice policies, there are more black men in jail or prison than in college. At the end of 2000, 791,600 black men were behind bars and 603,032 were enrolled in colleges or universities. By contrast, in 1980 -- before the prison boom -- black men in college outnumbered black men behind bars by a ratio of more than 3 to 1, the study found.

The report, "Cellblocks or Classrooms? The Funding of Higher Education and Corrections and Its Impact on African American Men," also found that spending on education has suffered as a result of the imprisonment binge. Between 1985 and 2000, the increase in state spending on corrections was nearly double that of the increase to higher education ($20 billion versus $10.7 billion), and the total increase in spending on higher education by states was 24%, compared with 166% for corrections. (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle-old/252/jpistudy.shtml)

According to a Justice Department report released in July 2003, the U.S. prison population surpassed 2 million for the first time—2,166,260 people were incarcerated in prisons or jails at the end of 2002 (the latest statistics available). Since 1990, the U.S. prison population, already the world's largest, has almost doubled. About two-thirds of prisoners were in state and federal prisons, while the rest were in local jails. The report does not count all juvenile offenders, but noted that there were more than 10,000 inmates under age 18 held in adult prisons and jails in 2002. The number of women in federal and state prisons reached 97,491. About 10.4% of the entire African-American male population in the United States aged 25 to 29 was incarcerated, by far the largest racial or ethnic group—by comparison, 2.4% of Hispanic men and 1.2% of white men in that same age group were incarcerated. According to a report by the Justice Policy Institute in 2002, the number of black men in prison has grown to five times the rate it was twenty years ago. Today, more African-American men are in jail than in college. In 2000 there were 791,600 black men in prison and 603,032 enrolled in college. In 1980, there were 143,000 black men in prison and 463,700 enrolled in college. (http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0881455.html#ixzz1N3On9yh6) (http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0881455.html)

What keeps students from dropping out has also been well researched. Overall, when students feel a sense of belonging, membership and engagement, and a community of support they remain in school.   A number of studies have found that mentor programs or the presence of a significant caring adult can cause at-risk students to remain in school (Outlaw, 2004; Rysewyk, 2008;). (http://robdarrow.wordpress.com/2011/04/29/research-high-school-dropouts/)

 

The Outdated “Sports/Entertainment Paradigm”

I believe that one of the primary causes of the alarming rise of African-American males in prison is the result of what I call the “Sports/Entertainment Paradigm.” Sadly, African Americans seem to be operating out of a collective “success” paradigm that is outmoded and outdated. Despite the fact that African-Americans have been blessed to live in the richest nation in the history of the world; as late as 2011, many African-Americans continue to see the sports/entertainment industry, and/or the underground economy which is fueled by drugs and crime, as the best ladders to upward mobility in America. Seventy-five years ago, that may have been true. Most legal means of upward mobility (other than professional sports and entertainment) were closed to African-Americans, replaced with Jim Crow segregation, spectator community lynchings, an absence of civil and human rights, and abject poverty, as high percentages of African-Americans, North and South, lived in terror below the poverty line.

Unfortunately, someone forgot to tell African-Americans that there are a myriad of legal industries now open to them that their great grandparents could barely dream about. It’s as if a massive economic party is going on globally; like other cultural groups African-Americans have been invited, but they refuse to answer the phone to accept the invitation. For decades, African-American leaders, as well as the rank and file, trashed America for locking them out of the ballroom; now that they’ve been invited, African-Americans refuse to put on a new outfit and join the rest of the world in the global economic party.

Over forty years after Civil Rights Legislation forever changed the socioeconomic fabric of American culture, African-Americans have dangerously settled for one-third of their people stuck at the bottom of what some have called a permanent underclass, wandering aimlessly through a suffocating, desolate euphoria of disunity. In other words, forty years post Civil Rights and the martyrdom of Dr. King, African-Americans are carrying a loaf of bread in both hands and still scurrying around America crying, “I’m hungry!” Exclaiming desperately how this cultural group or that cultural group is conspiring to destroy them. Sheer nonsesnse!! No other cultural group is forcing African-Americans to sell lethal narcotics to their own people---that’s the tragic outcome of a deadly, unGodly combination of greed, ignorance, and hopelessness. No other cultural group is pulling the trigger to murder so many African-American males, ages 15-25; most often it's one young African-American male wantonly shooting, maiming, or killing another African-American male, usually over something silly. Seventy-Five years ago, the Ku Klux Klan was terrorizing African-Americans in the South into the "Great Migration;" today African-Americans are terrorizing the innocent, law abiding men, women, and children of their own communities. No other cultural group is denying African-Americans the chance to seize the educational opportunities sitting at their doorsteps, or to take a trip to the public library and read!!! Again, I say sheer nonsense!!! African-Americans are the primary destroyers of their own communities today, and that is tragic! It's not some other cultural group thats the boogeyman; it's African-Americans themselves!

Shackled by a pervasive ignorance and apathy, many young African-American males continue to invest body, brain, and soul into the sports/entertainment industry, while writing off higher education as nothing more than a stepping-stone to a lucrative career in professional sports/entertainment. When these futile dreams fail to be realized for millions of young African-American males (as the math indicates they will for all but an infinitesimally small number of the lucky few), many of our young men and women feel that they are forced into unsavory lifestyles of crime because they never took seriously the opportunity to get a quality education. An education that could have possibly produced the cure for cancer, or another African-American president, another African-American billionaire to add to the only two African-Americans have (Bob Johnson & Oprah Winfrey), or a fix for global warming, or the end to dependency on foreign oil! Who knows how many young African-American males and females could have achieved overwhelming success for themselves, their families, their children, their communities, their people, their nation, and their world---if only they had been taught the true value of information and education at an early age, as the Japanese have been doing for decades now!

When will African-Americans relinquish this archaic sports/entertainment paradigm that no longer serves the collective needs of a people who now number over 40 million?!

 

3 Educational Strategies that Work for Economically Disadvantaged African-American Students: Compassionate Connection, Compassionate Correction, & Compassionate, Culturally Relevant Curricula

 

Now is the time to let it go! Now is the time to say yes to a future that begins with a quality education. And I believe that one excellent place to begin this future is at Holy Savior Catholic Academy with a teacher whose entire approach to education is rooted in caring, compassion, and grace. In the remarkable educational film, Freedom Writers, teacher Erin Gruell presented a telling question to her oppressive supervisor, "How can you teach them; you don't even like them?!" Unlike many of my colleagues outside of Holy Savior, I believe that teaching must begin with compassion. I believe that you must not only like your students, as hard as it can be sometimes, you must love them---in spite of all of their emotional flaws, warts, and baggage!"

First, there should be a compassionate attempt to connect with students. I don’t believe that a teacher can really teach African-American students without the trust that is built with compassionate connection. Of all the different cultural groups I have taught, I have found African-American students, especially males, to be quite unique with respect to the attitude they exhibit in the classroom toward learning. Unlike other cultural groups, African-American students have a tendency to dismiss the learning opportunity if they do not like the teacher, or, more importantly, if they believe that the teacher does not like them. It’s as if their relationship with the teacher is paramount, rather than the opportunity to learn. Therefore, I believe that before one can begin to teach African-American students, one must first get them to like and trust you. Students must know that you have their best interests at heart!

One of the ways I do this is through an external or extrinsic reward system that annually costs between  $2,000 to $3,000 dollars (out of my own pocket). Many educators frown upon extrinsic rewards, arguing that students should be naturally or intrinsically motivated (Quick Question: How many teachers are intrinsically motivated; how many teachers would continue to teach if they weren’t paid to do it?!). This may be true for the student who comes from a culture that values education more than sports and entertainment, but for the student who operates out of the sports/entertainment paradigm, its preposterous to think that they will value education simply because it has been statistically proven that education can bring them a great financial future. Many of these young people look at the paths taken by their favorite professional athletes and entertainers and conclude that if they invest 110% of their hearts, bodies, and souls into their dream to be a star, then they won’t need the sturdy foundation that rigorous academics can provide. To approach students who think like this with a promise of external rewards in the distant future when they are twenty-five years “old” is to fight a losing battle----much of the time! Consequently, I provide students with an opportunity to earn as much as they can---which can sometimes be $100 or more----over the course of a 36-week school year. The cash opportunity gets most students attention, and they become motivated to do what’s necessary to get the cash, but in the process they oftentimes end up unwittingly getting a better education than they would have acquired naturally. Whenever possible, I also try to use idoms that African-American students readily recognize. For example, “you got jokes” is an idiom that comes straight from the streets. When a student realizes that you have not only taken the time to study and understand their informal language but can also use it effectively, it strengthens their ability to trust you as an educator who cares-----an insider rather than an outsider!

A second strategy I use to engender academic success with African-American students is compassionate correction. Some teachers seem to think that the purpose of discipline is to punish students. This idea runs counter to the core principle underlying compassionate correction. Rather than punish, the goal of compassionate correction is to use the correctional moment as an opportunity to share God’s grace, the unconditional love from God that we don’t deserve and cannot earn! Instead of sending a student out of the classroom for every minor infraction, whenever possible I try to quickly correct disruptive student behavior in the classroom. Keeping students in the classroom equals more time on task and more time to learn, which should theoretically result in higher scores on state assessments. A student sitting in the office, or in a buddy teacher’s room, is missing valuable instruction time. While having a disruptive student out of the classroom may be a great temporary fix for the teacher, the reduced classroom instruction time will often show up at the worst possible time----during the state assessment season, as these students score poorly compared to their peers who received more instruction time with the teacher.

Finally, a third strategy I use to support African-American success in the classroom is teaching a compassionate and culturally relevant curriculum. No human being wants to be bombarded day in and day out with illustrations and examples of the great historical achievements of other cultural groups without hearing examples that speak to the greatness of his or her own cultural group. Needless to say, there is far more to talk about African-American history than American slavery; teachers need to find creative ways to address the African side of the hyphenated nomenclature, the side into which fits Kings, Queens, Pharoahs, technology, pyramids and so forth. The African side of the hyphen (which tends tro be the most neglected) is where African-Americans can draw great strength and self-esteem boosts from---all of which can help to motivate them intrinsically. Realizing this fact, whenever possible I try to intentionally inject examples of great achievements of persons of African descent. For example, if I am addressing the equality of all human beings, I may mention that while human beings do differ culturally, we are all one species or people biologically, a fact borne out by the discovery that all human DNA can be traced back to one African woman in East Central Africa. The goal of such a strategy is not to discount the achievements of other cultural groups, but to carefully build the self-esteem of African-American students by helping them to see that they are not, nor ever have been, part of an inferior cultural group. I believe that higher self-esteem is at the core of learning because it empowers the student to believe that she or he can do anything they set their mind to---not just sports or entertainment!

 

My Teaching Record Over The Last 6 Years

By no means are my three core strategies for working with economically disadvantaged African-American students the only effective strategies out there. Notwithstanding, I have been able to enjoy a record of success that may be unmatched over the last six years. While not bragging, I invite any other educator in this great state of Kansas to publicly match my record of State Reading Assessment success with economically disadvantaged African-American students over the last six years:

2005—2006  Stucky Middle School---8th Grade Standard of Excellence

In 2006, my 8th grade students at Stucky Middle School achieved a Standard of Excellence (Standard of Excellence = 20% exemplary; academic warning must be less than 10%)

2006—2007  Holy Savior Catholic Academy---8th Grade Standard of Excellence

In 2007, my 8th grade students at Holy Savior Catholic Academy achieved a Standard of Excellence (Standard of Excellence = 20% exemplary; academic warning must be less than 10%)

2007—2008  Brooks Middle School---8th Grade = 93% pass rate

In 2008, my 8th grade students passed the State Reading Assessment at a rate of 93%; because one of my Euro-American females failed the test, my African-American students actually edged out my Euro-American students’ pass rate in 2008

2009—2010  Brooks Middle School---8th Grade Standard of Excellence

In 2010, my 8th grade students at Brooks Middle School achieved a Standard of Excellence (Standard of Excellence = 20% exemplary; academic warning must be less than 10%)

2010—2011  Holy Savior Catholic Academy---

7th Grade Standard of Excellence

8th Grade Probable Standard of Excellence

In 2011, my 7th grade students at Holy Savior Catholic Academy achieved a Standard of Excellence (Standard of Excellence = 20% exemplary; academic warning must be less than 10%); there is a strong possibility that my 8th grade students also achieved a Standard of Excellence with an 89% pass rate

 

Conclusion

Negative educational and criminal justice statistics about African-American males in particular, and African-American students in general, are quite disturbing. I believe that what I call the “Sports/Entertainment Paradigm” is playing a critical role in the perpetuation of negative attitudes toward education in the African-American community. For example, it’s easy to fill a gym for a "critical" basketball game in the "hood," but nearly impossible to fill an auditorium for parent-teacher conferences in that same hood!

I believe that there are quality schools in the hoods across this great nation of ours that will be key players in the eradication of this destructive “Sports/Entertainment Paradigm.” Holy Savior is but one example of such a school in Wichita. Holy Savior Catholic Academy is a school on the rise. It boasts a compassionate pastor, Fr. James Billinger; a caring, people-oriented principal, Ms. Delia Barnett, and a faculty of caring teachers. With this in mind, I strongly encourage you to consider Holy Savior Catholic Academy as a provider of a high quality education for your child.