School deck stacked against black boys

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Boys, particularly African-American boys, trail girls in most areas of school accomplishment.

They tend to score lower on tests, fail more courses and drop out in greater numbers.

Dr. William Pollack, who directs the Center for Men and Young Men at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., says that as early as 4th grade, boys get the message that they do not have the skills to succeed.

One reason, he says, is that teachers misread developmental delays as alac of ability. For example, boys typically learn sentence formation a year later than girls—as lack of ability. Teachers also see boys’ more active physical behavior as a problem rather than a learning style that should be used as conduit for teaching, he continues. Then, he says, the “boy code” of silence compounds the situation: Boys don’t talk about their learning problems.

African-American males from urban environments face further discouragement that stems from race and class bias.

“Teachers lower expectations for students based on race, gender, income and appearance,” notes Jawanza Kunjufu, an educational consultant with Chicago-based African-American Images. “So a black male student from a low-income area who isn’t dressed neatly has many strikes against him.”

“There’s not a lot of expectations for young, black men,” concurs Michelle Brindell, college counselor at Hales Franciscan High School, an all-black school for boys in Bronzeville. “You’re supposed to sell drugs. You’re supposed to drop out of high school.”

Hales Franciscan, which enrolls just 245 students, creates expectations of its own. Beginning freshman year, Brindell works with students to plot a course to college.

“There’s lots of good competition between the boys to get the best grades and to be valedictorian,” Brindell says. “As boys are accepted to colleges, they congratulate one another. So few people are stressing to them that they can be successful people, but here they are supporting each other.”

In each of the past five years, all seniors have been accepted by at least one institution of higher learning.

Kunjufu would like to see more schools for black boys only. “We advocate classrooms only populated by African-American males until teachers recognize that boys and girls learn differently,” he says.

University of Chicago researcher Melissa Roderick, who tracked a group of African-American students from 8th to 9th grades, says that that transition is especially perilous. In 8th grade, teachers gave higher ratings to the boys in the group on all measures: academic skills, motivation, social skills, home support for learning and engagement. In 9th grade, teachers rated both boys and girls lower than 8th-grade teachers had, but the marks for boys fell more steeply. “After 90 days in high school, males were already in the position of being at risk of not moving forward,” she says.

Boys’ lack of engagement can be seen in lower attendance rates and lower participation in extracurricular activities, except for sports, according to Pollack. In Chicago, boys even are less likely to enroll in JROTC Army units. Citywide enrollment is 58 percent female, according to Lt. Col. William Fletcher, assistant director of ROTC in CPS.

Pollack, author of “Real Boys’ Voices,” says that African-American males face the highest hurdles, but he says the problem for boys is more pervasive. “It isn’t just in Columbine and the inner city, it’s boys feeling hurt and angry in school, even the boys who seem to be doing well on the outside,” he says. “It’s not just the Chicago inner-city kid, it’s the ‘boy next door.'”