How is it that an African-American student attending his high school graduation ceremony can feel depressed—overwhelmed by what the future holds and wondering why other students appear to be looking forward to college and the years ahead?
Why could this youth see no advantage in his success—and the opportunity to go to college—compared to students who enlisted in the military or entered the workforce?
There is a crippling power in the disconnect that exists between many African-American and Latino male students and their educational opportunities, David Heifer, executive director of Concentric Educational Solutions, told urban school leaders during a workshop Friday at the Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE) conference in Atlanta.
In an hour-and-a-half discussion of strategies that schools can use to help young men of color, Heifer noted that these students often face challenges that undermine their confidence, discourage their hopes, and leave them frustrated and defensive.
Many of these challenges have their roots in the poverty, broken homes, drug abuse, and other social ills that exist in urban communities. But another part of the problem rests in the failure of urban educators to understand what these students are going through—and the failure of schools to provide the social and emotional support these young men need.
That’s the result of another disconnect—between students and the adults in their schools, he said. Teachers and principals don’t live in the same neighborhoods as their students, and they cannot really understand what’s happening in the lives of these students.
Instead, school leaders turn to data to try to make sense of what’s happening.
“We get caught up in numbers—the dropout rate, the truancy rate,” he said. “We skip right to solutions … then come back next year and try to come up with policies to figure out” how to do better.
It’s a dynamic that Heifer indicated he understood all too well. During his high school years, his father died of a heart attack, and as a grief-stricken youth, he began to act out—a troublemaker transferred to five different schools over the course of his senior year. He eventually was arrested 28 times and sent to prison.
With a little luck and the support of others, however, Heifer says he managed to turn his life around, earn his GED, attend college, and become a school principal. But he still recalls that, after his father’s death, not a single teacher or school counselor offered any condolences.
None of the adults in his school understood his pain—or recognized that there was an underlying reason for his dramatic change in behavior.
The story underscored Heiber’s argument that, if educators truly want to help their minority male students, they need to do a better job of understanding what’s going on in these students’ lives. There are a variety of ways to do that, but Heiber focused most of his comments one strategy—encouraging teachers to make home visits.
It’s a strategy that his nonprofit school-support organization encourages in the schools that it works with. In fact, he boasted, teachers at these schools have made more than 5,000 home visits in recent years.
Schools also can do more to strengthen “wrap-around services” for students, he suggested. “Students need their social-emotional support.”
What they don’t need, however, is “discipline policy that mimics the criminal justice system.”
Many school boards already have recognized the need to provide these supports. If a school board isn’t seeing results, however, the reason may lie with another common “disconnect”—between what the school board wants to happen and the actual practices taking place in schools.
“We come up with policies at the school board level, then we go to the schools … quite frankly, they don’t want to hear what you have to say.”
So school board members need to get out more—into their schools and, yes, even into their students’ homes—so they can better understand the dynamics at work in young men’s lives.
“You have to uncover it, and the only way to uncover it is to ask the hard questions,” Heifer said. “You’ve got to get dirty. You’ve got to get in there.”