By now, the disproportionate number of African American and Hispanic males in prison and without jobs is common knowledge. Indeed, recent figures from the College Board continue to support this reality. Lagging behind starts early and sets a grim stage. But last week, a coalition of Twin Cities educators did something to counter that troubling longtime trend.
Male Hispanic and African American eighth-grade students from eight northwest metro school districts took part in a new week-long program held at the University of St. Thomas aimed at reducing what has become known as the “achievement gap.” The Step-Up program works to increase student understanding of the importance of goal-setting, sacrifice and academic achievement as well as increase self-efficacy and pride. It is patterned after a model created by Dr. Donna Ford and Dr. Gillman Whiting of Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
“I remember, as I look at you guys, what my life was like when I was in the eighth grade,” Tony Hunter, a former University of Minnesota football player who also played professionally said as he addressed the youth attending the summit. Hunter went on to describe his own teen years, filled with some mistakes, but a determination to make it out of his rough Memphis neighborhood and the good fortune to have legendary Chicago Bears football player Walter Payton as his coach while a student.
The reality of the odds he faced hit Hunter, now a community and cultural liaison for Highview Middle School in New Brighton, during one his youthful brushes with the law. “It was only when I was arrested for something I didn’t do that the light bulb went off,” Hunter told the youth. “I was guilty by association.”
Given a second chance by the court system, Hunter began to disassociate himself from others who were getting into trouble and refocused his energies on school and athletics. For college, he chose the University of Minnesota, he said, because he knew academics would be stressed there. That focus led to professional football and a career in education.
It’s that ability to focus that organizers from the Northwest Suburban Integration School District (NWISD) hope they were able to get across to the 50 mostly African American and Hispanic eighth-grade boys who attended the summit. The NWISD is a consortium of eight school districts: Anoka-Hennepin, Brooklyn Center, Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose, Elk River, Fridley, Mounds View, Osseo and Rockford. Activities included a rope course at Camp Ihduhapi, a scavenger hunt in downtown Minneapolis and group sessions designed to challenge and inspire. All of the keynote speakers were African American men.
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“The Educational Experience of Young Men of Color” from the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center shows that only 33 percent of African American or Hispanic men go to college after high school, compared to 61 percent of Asian men. African American and Hispanic men lag behind their female counterparts, with 56 percent of African American women attending college and 54 percent of Hispanic women doing so. As for incarceration, the report states, 5 percent of Hispanic males and 10 percent of African American males graduating high school will find themselves in prison.
To be sure, the College Board reports, the entire landscape for postsecondary education is facing a crisis in the United States. As of 2008, only 42 percent of 25-to 34-year olds in this country had attained an associate degree or higher. But the statistics, when broken down by race, are even more alarming because they show that only 30 percent of African American and 20 percent of Latinos had earned a postsecondary degree, compared to 49 percent of whites.
The bottom line is clear: increased attention to young African American and Hispanic males is essential to addressing disparities. That’s where the work of the Step-Up program comes in. The program stresses academic achievement, relationships, self-esteem, cultural identity and pride. Portions of the program are similar to advice heard from various educators, writers and researchers in recent years, including the four volumes of “Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys” by Jawanza Kunjufu. Exposing the young men attending the summit to the many opportunities that exist after high school was another component. Several times during the week speakers and group leaders emphasized that the odds against making it in popular field of professional sports are extremely high and it’s important to have alternative plans and preparation.
Step-Up encompasses some of the recommendations made by the College Board: making improved outcomes for young men of color a national priority; increasing community, business and school partnerships to provide mentoring and support; reforming education for college and career readiness; improving teacher education to include cultural and gender responsive training and creating culturally responsive persistence and retention.
Although the week-long program ended Friday, organizers plan to follow-up with ongoing academic support, including tutors from area colleges and after-school activities. Meetings with students, parents and key school workers are planned as well.
Louis Porter II of Minneapolis is a former reporter, now an educator pursuing a doctorate at the University of St. Thomas School of Education.