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Back to School or back to hell? Why America's education system continues failing Black students

By Starla Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Sep 10, 2012 - 11:42:15 AM

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( - Faulty equipment, fights in the hallways, overcrowded classrooms, failing grades, security guards, scarce resources and high suspension rates. This is not the description of a school in some Third World war torn country.  It is the unfortunate yet glaring reality facing thousands of Black, Latino and poor children the United States educational system. 

A gap remains in graduation rates between Black and White males with only 47 percent of Black males graduating high school compared to 78 percent of White males according to the Schott 50 State Report on Public Education and Black Males.

Data collected in 2009-2010 by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, says Black students were three and a half times more likely to be suspended or expelled than White students and 70 percent of students involved in school related arrests or referred to law enforcement were Black or Latino.

One in five Black boys and one in 10 Black girls received an out of school suspension according to department data. Black students are less likely to have access to college preparatory classes but are quick to be ushered into special education classes.  Black and Latino schools are grossly underfunded compared to majority-White schools.

Reports and studies are released year after year, with the same results; Black children are falling further and further behind as collateral damage, victims of an educational system that is failing them.

Despite the recent executive order signed in July by President Barack Obama to establish the first ever White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, it remains to be seen if the pressing issues critical to cultivating Black children toward excellence will change.

“Educational research has demonstrated that the real purpose of public education is to reproduce current power relations.  So if Blacks and Latinos are disempowered, the current system is set up to perpetuate this disempowerment,” says Chike Akua, Executive Director of the Teacher Transformation Institute and author of  “Education for Transformation: The Keys to Releasing the Genius of African American Students”.

Mr. Akua is a former Teacher of the Year and currently develops African-centered curriculum for schools and travels the country teaching and training teachers and administrators at all levels. “There are a number of schools, public, private and charter that are under the administration of bold and visionary leaders.  But these schools are few and far between, certainly not enough to meet the needs of the masses of the people,” Mr. Akua told The Final Call via email.

A visionary when it came to the deficiencies he saw in America’s educational system and how the consequences effected Black children, The Honorable Elijah Muhammad and his followers pulled their children out of public schools and began teaching them in what was considered a controversial and bold move back in the 1930s and 40s. 

Much to the anger and dismay of the federal government, The Nation of Islam established Muhammad University of Islam with a focus on a God-centered practical curriculum to train its students to be productive and to develop future leaders. Minister Louis Farrakhan has warned America that if the country refuses to wake up and recognize the consequences of perpetuating the current system of education, its fate is sealed.

Today, more Black parents are pulling their children out of the public school system, opting instead to home school, providing a more culturally rounded educational focus.

But for those children that remain behind, in cities like Chicago, where a teacher’s strike is looming or in Lauderdale County, Miss. where the Department of Justice recently accused officials of running a school to prison pipeline, serious problems remain.

Dr. Umar Abdullah-Johnson, a nationally certified school psychologist agrees telling The Final Call institutional racism is a major contributing factor to why the public education system is failing Black children. The fact that there are not enough Black male teachers is a huge problem he says. “That is the number one institutional issue that is breeding the crime, dropout, suspensions and enormous referral rates to special education. I often argue that if you want to eliminate half of drop outs, special ed (education), ADHD, drugs, gangs, give every Black Boy a heterosexual, culturally competent, Black male teacher. You will eliminate half the problems in school,” says Dr. Abdullah-Johnson.  The problems grow out of the gender inequity in the teaching corps he adds.

“Ninety-three percent of all American school teachers, public, private, charter, parochial, are middle class White women and too often we fail to look at the failure of the Black male and the girl but especially the male from the perspective of the racial disconnect between the instructor and the student. That is major,” said Dr. Abdullah-Johnson. How teachers feel about the students in his or her class lend to the outcome of how the students do in that class he explains.

According to statistics, more than 35 percent of public school students are Black or Latino but only six to nine percent of teachers are Black or Latino. Less than two percent of U.S. teachers are Black men.

“People like to minimize the role of the racial background of the teacher as it relates to academic failure. You can’t minimize that, you have to maximize that. Well race don’t matter, as long as you have a teacher who can teach, that is nonsense,” says Dr. Abdullah-Johnson.

“The top three problems are low expectations, cultural incompetence, and economic educational disparities.  Often educators and administrators do not expect our children to achieve and they produce exactly what they expect,” adds Mr. Akua. The root of these problems is racism and the need for perpetual power and control, he says.

“Unless we begin to hold schools and school boards accountable and begin to build and develop our own schools, curricula, programs and Saturday schools, we will continue to see more of the same devastation and miseducation,” says Mr. Akua.

Only 40 percent of high schools serving the mostly Black and Latino students offer physics and less than one-third offer calculus.

“Most teachers lack an understanding of the keys to releasing the genius of Black children. Though many are well-meaning, they have not been instructed in the methods and materials necessary to bring out the best in Black youth,” says Mr. Akua.

Dr. Abdullah-Johnson says Special Education is being used as a weapon of mass destruction particularly against Black boys in schools, setting up a situation of premature incarceration.

“Once they get diagnosed with that learning disability or that mental retardation or that emotional or behavioral disturbance, once that label gets put on them, they are automatically deemed repulsive to the school’s environment. Once they’re deemed repulsive all of the teachers, all of the staff, all the faculty in that building is going to treat them in such a way that it makes him feel like he doesn’t belong there. That leads to dropout,” explains Dr. Abdullah-Johnson.

In many school districts whether Black students make up the racial majority or minority, they are still more likely to get suspended for minor or major infractions moreso than White students.  According to the Education Department’s Civil Rights division in 2009-2010 in New York City Public Schools, Blacks made up 30 percent of enrollment but 46 percent of suspensions; in Chicago 45 percent of enrollment but 76 percent of suspensions and in Houston, 26 percent and 45 percent respectively.

Community Asset Development Redefining Education (CADRE), a Los Angeles-based grassroots organization of parents along with dozens of other community groups have banded together as part of the Solutions Not Suspensions campaign, calling for a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions that disproportionately affect Black and Latino students. The campaign, launched August 21 is led by the Dignity in Schools Campaign and the Opportunity to Learn Campaign.

School districts must develop and implement strategies with the help of parents and the community focused on keeping children in school and in classroom instead of pushing them out Rob McGowan, associate director of organizing for CADRE told The Final Call.

“In the high schools that we were working closely in, we saw that African Americans comprised of 19 to 20 percent of the population, but yet represented 51 to 54 percent of the suspensions,” says Mr. McGowan who along with CADRE has been tackling this issue for years. “The disproportionality is a huge thing for us to deal with. We feel like people don’t understand what’s happening in our communities, don’t understand the reasons why kids act out, why kids do the things that they do. If you don’t understand the community, where they come from and the issues that they’re dealing with at a very young age, then you will see some of their actions as being disrespectful, being defiant,” said Mr. McGowan adding that the main reason for suspensions in Los Angeles is “willful defiance”.

Mr. McGowan says willful defiance can be “anything” from not having a pen, pencil or paper for class, not wearing a school uniform and talking back which can lead to suspension.

Dr. Abdullah-Johnson says, there are other contributing factors responsible for the academic failures of Black children that are community based and family centered. Black parents are guilty of academic neglect whether they are rich, middle class or poor, he says.

“With the poor Black parents they’re so busy struggling to keep the bills paid and I can’t knock them for that. They often don’t schedule enough time to sit down with the kids and talk about school, talk about life, check the homework, go to the report card conferences. For the poor Black parents, they’re just straight up stressed out,” says Dr. Abdullah-Johnson. Emotional deficiencies in the home or environment lead to poor academic outcome in school, he adds.

In “readiness to learn” criteria, Black children were twice as likely to live in a household in which no parent had fulltime or year round employment in 2008 notes the Dept. of Education Civil Rights Division. In 2007, one out of every three Black children lived in poverty compared with one out of every 10 White children.

That still does not underestimate the importance of a safe, challenging and caring school environment with teachers that want to truly educate Black children.

“Just because a teacher is a nationally certified teacher and great in math does not mean she can teach “Mike Mike” math very well. There is a cultural relevance component of this that gets beyond what they’re learning in the college of education,” says Dr. Chandra Gill, author, educator and founder of Blackademically Speaking.

There is often an expectation by both White and Black teachers that Black students are not meant to excel academically, she continued.

How do we deal with this issue of low expectation? Dr. Gill asked. “We have to deal with this thing understanding that a lot of our teachers are still siding with the societal norms that suggest African American students are still inferior based off of these fallacies of African Americans not being good enough,” she says. 

President Obama tapped Dr. Freeman Hrawbowski III as the chair of the newly-minted national initiative. According to Mr. Obama, the office will be under the U.S. Dept. of Education and will work with his office, cabinet and federal agencies. Dr. Hrawbowski is president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC). The Final Call reached out to the office of Dr. Hrawbowski but did not receive a response by presstime.

Dr. Abdullah-Johnson says he heard of the new White House initiative and will be reviewing it. “From what I hear, to be honest with you, I’m not too impressed. The reason why I’m not too impressed is because the president as well as the secretary of education Arne Duncan, they are well aware of why our children are failing. It is not a secret,” he says.

“We don’t need any more investigations; we don’t need any more research studies, we don’t need any more task forces. The president knows exactly what needs to be done. The problem is he’s too afraid to do it because it’s election year and he don’t want the backlash on election day,” says Dr. Abdullah-Johnson. “President Obama knows that every single school district in America should have an office of Black Male Retention and Success. There should be an office with staff whose whole job is to make sure Black males stay in school and that they graduate,” says Dr. Abdullah-Johnson.

Dr. Gill says when she heard about the initiative, she immediately sought out more information but thinks it could be a way to nationalize the issue facing Black students. It will take work from a grassroots level as well, she explains.

“I think this (initiative) is a continuation of a national light being shown upon an issue that we know exists. How it unfolds is up to us getting beyond a culture of complaining, assessing and analyzing and saying ‘This is what we’re going to do and this is what we’re going to say to President Obama as a result of rolling this thing out.” 

Phillip Jackson of the Black Star Project and the force behind the Million Father March, which aims to encourage fathers to take their children to school on the first day of school recently blogged that the proper education of Black children is the responsibility of the community. If Black parents and communities in America are willing to allow Black children to be destroyed in American schools, “then we deserve what we get,” he notes.

“Black parents and Black communities are ultimately responsible for the education of Black children. Not teachers! Not schools! Not elected officials! We are responsible! If our children are being destroyed in American schools, it is only because we allow it,” wrote Mr. Jackson.