Across the nation, struggling black male students like Ishmere
and academic standouts like Malcolm, face a series of hurdles
in school. They aren't taking courses that prepare them for college.
Their teachers aren't prepared, emotionally or professionally,
to work with them. They aren't challenged. Jobs and rap music
are more appealing to them than education.
Black females are clearing most of those hurdles. The credit
for any statistical data reporting improvements goes to them.
The overwhelming majority of black teen-age boys trip, fall and
give up. Black women enroll in college and earn bachelor's and
master's degrees two times more often than black men.
Nationally, most black males do well enough to earn high school
diplomas, but that's generally their academic high point.
What comes next is staggering economically, politically and
socially. For more than two generations, black women have been
leaving black men behind. They outnumber them in both undergraduate
and graduate school and go on to outpace them in the professional
Black men, in contrast, go on to have the highest unemployment
rates of any ethnic group. One in four do prison time. Nearly
half never marry, leaving 43 percent of black women to run households
But little has been done systemically to stop this slide. In
fact, the academic gender gap has been growing for more than
"This is huge social dynamite," said
Kati Haycock, director of the education reform group The Education
The fuse is lit every day in schools like DeRenne Middle.
Studious, soft-spoken Malcolm Tariq could compete academically
with the very best at DeRenne Middle.
But as he breezed through a quiz in his accelerated French class,
it was clear why he doesn't.
The most enriching courses offered at his majority
black inner-city school are reserved for the magnet program,
which enrolls the
majority of the school's white and Asian population. Almost all
non-blacks at DeRenne are college-bound suburbanites who drive
into the high-crime neighborhood solely for this accelerated
It takes a 3.8 grade point average, a clear behavioral record
and above average standardized test scores to qualify. Just 45
of the school's 302 black males are enrolled in the magnet program.
These classes, which until recently were held in a separate
wing, can appear to be uninviting, cliquish places. It is an
atmosphere where class-conscious middle-schoolers can easily
come to believe that the low proportion of black students is
a sign of inferiority.
"Many of our black males don't enroll because of their
standardized test scores," said program coordinator Ze Santa
But there are black kids with the academic qualifications who
aren't enrolled, according to Assistant Principal Betty Burnette,
because they don't feel welcomed by the whites inside of the
program. And, they are often ridiculed by the blacks on the outside.
"They're teased and called nerds," Burnette said. "And
their parents let them out of the program."
According to psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum's research of
racial identity, black teens define themselves by what they see
in videos and on television. Cultural stereotypes reinforce the
assumption that academics are meant for whites.
So, when black kids face an uninviting racial atmosphere, they
turn to peers for support only to face further discouragement.
If Malcolm enrolled as a magnet student, he'd have a head start
on his college preparation. But he would also spend his days
on the fringe of an academic clique where black teen boys are
outnumbered 4 to 1.
On a quiz day in his accelerated French class,
Malcolm was one of just six blacks – three boys and three girls.
They all sat quietly in one corner of the room near the door
while their teacher
gravitated to a crowd of blond girls huddled in the other half
of the room. There was no interaction between the groups.
Regular level social studies was a different world.
Everyone, including the teacher, was black. And although the
class wasn't particularly challenging, the atmosphere was fun
Malcolm chooses to take just a few accelerated courses and then
return to regular courses with the general student body.
"They wanted me to (enroll in the magnet program) but I
didn't want to," he said. "I like all of my classes."
But a black student's chances for completing
college hinge on the intensity of the courses he takes in school
more than anything
else, according to a U.S. Department of Education study. Finishing
an upper level math course beyond Algebra 2 – trigonometry or
pre-calculus, for example – more than doubles the odds that a
student will complete a bachelor's degree.
But young black men aren't taking enough accelerated courses.
In Georgia, less than half even pursue a college prep diploma
in high school.
Ishmere McKinney is almost never prepared academically, but
he clearly wants to be.
"The truth is, kids want to do well," said Mary Catherine
Swanson, founder of the Advancement Via Individual Determination
(AVID) program. "But until they succeed with the best, they
won't believe they're the best. They have to be able to compete,
and their whole self-image changes."
Ishmere is in with low-level students in large, loud and, at
times, unruly classes at DeRenne.
But he doesn't help his situation either. He often spends free
class time rushing through homework from other courses that he
failed to do the night before.
His mother, Vickie McKinney, is a single parent. Neither she,
nor Ishmere's father or 20-year-old brother went to college.
Vickie wants Ishmere to succeed, but admits she sometimes struggles
with his assignments herself.
"Often times, parents who are struggling to make ends meet
don't have the time that is necessary to devote to their children's
school work," said Charlene Dukes, a Maryland college administrator
and board member for the predominantly black Prince George's
County Schools. "Many are also unaware of the amount of
time and attention that is necessary for their children to excel
When his social studies teacher, Calandra Patterson, asked for
the definition of a fossil, Ishmere waved his hand frantically.
She called on him, but he had to flip through his textbook in
search of the answer.
"You were supposed to define those words last night," his
teacher said. "Didn't you do your homework?"
"No," Ishmere replied, still face
down in the book and flipping frantically.
"Well," she said disappointedly, "Let's
go to someone who did."
Coming to school late with incomplete homework is just one part
of Ishmere's struggle.
"Many people want to blame parent participation for low
achievement, but having poorly prepared teachers also leaves
students at a disadvantage," said The Education Trust's
Haycock. "All in all, that's much more important than what
the parents do."
Nationally, 21 percent of teachers at public schools with a
75 percent minority enrollment are new to the profession.
At schools with less than 10 percent minority enrollment, the
percentage of inexperienced teachers is 14 percent, according
to U.S. Department of Education statistics. The agency reports
that new teachers are typically less effective, and that during
their first few years on the job, their students have lower achievement
But even the best teachers aren't trained to address the specific
academic needs of male students.
"Teachers don't learn anything about the differences in
boy and girl learning development when they are in college," said
Tom Mortenson, a higher education policy analyst with Postsecondary
Ishmere's social studies teacher struggled to engage the group
of 24 black students, but nine of them slept through the class.
She offered candy and even told them the page and paragraph where
they could find answers.
But, by the end of class, she was taking deep calming breaths.
"This is just temporary for me," she said. "I'm
really a radio DJ."
The 2000 Condition of Education's Study of 1992 Graduates found
that more than half of black high school graduates aren't fully
qualified for admission to four-year colleges.
For black males, that suggests they get the academic bare minimum.
"Our system is largely set up for 100 years ago when all
you needed was a high school diploma," said Michael Kirst,
Stanford University professor and associate director of the Institute
of Higher Education Research. "We're doing great by 1903
Few black males take advanced classes, which are more in line
with college entrance requirements. Instead, they stick to classes
that meet basic high school graduation requirements.
About 60 percent of all black students stop at mid-level math
courses, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Even
if they earn high marks, the basics aren't designed to help them
break 1,000 on the SAT or prepare them for college work.
"They typically go through high school thinking everything
is fine academically, only to have their college ambitions blow
up in their faces when they attempt the SAT or college admissions
exams," said Kirst.
The best-prepared college students take accelerated courses
in elementary and middle school. In high school they go beyond
the basic college prep curriculum and take advanced placement
But minority students aren't likely to be well counseled about
college preparations or expectations and the importance of advanced
courses, Kirst said. Even middle-class blacks aren't always fully
aware because they are typically first generation middle-class
and don't travel in circles where these things are common knowledge.
Malcolm's parents are business owners, but neither has a bachelor's
degree. His father, who owns a clothing store and works for UPS,
didn't finished college. His mother, a beauty shop owner, attended
They support Malcolm's academics, but haven't pressed him to
enroll in the magnet program, as his school counselor suggested.
"I encourage him to make high grades in school and take
all the higher level courses he can. It will help him later on
in life," said Malcolm's mom, Teri Furman. "But we
don't want to push him into something he's not comfortable with."
It's hard to determine which came first, low teacher expectations
or students' refusal to do work. But according to the research
of University of California Berkeley professor John Ogbu, each
feeds the other.
In Ishmere's second period literacy class, the teacher's expectations
are low, and the students' attitudes aren't much better.
Every student at DeRenne is required to take
the 45-minute literacy lesson to help raise his or her standardized
test scores. The "easy
class" is regarded as a joke to most upper level students
like Malcolm. But the kids in Ishmere's class perceive it as
The class is taught by the art teacher, in the paint- and plaster-speckled
art room. The art teacher, Katherine Gardner, is white. The students
are all black and primarily male.
The eighth-graders in the class read childlike stories and answer
simple questions out of the same blue book sixth-graders use.
Carrying the blue workbook around school in their clear or mesh
backpacks is a stigma. It is particularly bothersome to Ishmere,
who is older than many of his classmates because he was held
back in the seventh grade.
"When I was in the sixth grade, this was the very first
book I had. When I was in seventh grade, I had the green book
two times, and now I'm back in the blue book again," Ishmere
said. "The work is too easy."
Stanford University professor of psychology Claude Steele has
researched the way students break down emotionally and academically
when they think they are being stereotyped.
"Stereotypes put a group under suspicion of not having
the adequate ability in the domain of school performance, and
it affects performance and persistence," Steele said.
The cue could be as obvious as the blue sixth-grade reading
book in Ishmere's class or as subtle as 15 white girls sitting
on their side of the room in Malcolm's accelerated French class.
But feeling stereotyped can affect everything from a student's
standardized test scores to the way a college student interacts
with classmates and communicates with professors, according to
"Black kids can be shy in classroom discussion because
if they make a mistake in conversation, it could be taken as
a stereotype and confirmation of the belief that they are academically
inferior," Steele said. "They think, 'I've just lost
40 IQ points in this professor's view of me,' and it can make
them want to avoid doing some of the things that can prepare
them for the test or course."
But there are ways for schools to eliminate some of the stereotype
tension, according to Steele. It involves building trust between
teachers and students and protecting student identities and confidence
in the classroom.
The slow, choppy readers in Ishmere's literacy class had to
read a short passage about baseball aloud. Then, in a slow, sarcastic
tone, the teacher asked them multiple choice questions.
But the students remained defiant. Three
girls – talking loudly – barged
in the door five minutes late. A wisecracking boy pulled a wad
of dollar bills out of his pocket and slapped them down, one
by one, on his desk, as if to dare the irritated teacher to yell.
She eagerly obliged.
"Pay attention!" she snapped. "If
you don't, you'll be repeating this class again next year with
Then she waved the blue book in the air for
everyone to see. Ishmere and the others erupted in an angry
me! No way! That's what you think!"
Images of Success
For many young black men, work doesn't really get started until
In his research on minority education, Berkeley's Ogbu found
that many black students, particularly males, allow extra curricular
activities and work to take priority over class.
When the school day ends, Ishmere takes a city bus downtown
to look for job openings. He's underage, but he's optimistic.
He may not be the most successful student, but with a little
extra money, at least he can look like one. Last year, when he
was 13, he held down a 5-11 p.m. dish-washing job at a Chinese
restaurant, for about a week.
Although some students use their income to help support their
families, Ogbu found that many black males work solely to accumulate
things. Ishmere wants to work so he can buy clothes and stop
for chips and soda on his way home from school.
"I don't like depending on people to buy me things," he
said. "If I work, I won't have to ask my mother for clothes
or shoes because she's kind of struggling right now."
Experts think black men choose work over college more than black
women because it's easier for them to earn a livable wage with
a high school diploma. They also find a steady paycheck more
gratifying than the thought of four more years of school. The
median income of black men with just a high school diploma is
$23,158 a year compared with $18,341 earned by black women, according
to census statistics.
But it is not just instant financial gratification they seek.
Many devote years to the pursuit of dreams of becoming sports
or music celebrities.
In their research on black manhood, psychologist Richard Majors
and sociologist Janet Mancini Billson found that black men focus
on entertainment and sports because those are areas where they
are known for outperforming everyone else. Many young black men
devote themselves to writing complex rhymes and developing beats
that they hope will attract attention and make them rich, famous
"This genre has captured the cultural identity interests
of black males, and has pretty much taken over their lives," said
Edmund Gordon, professor emeritus at Yale and Columbia universities
and co-chairman of the National Task Force on Minority High Achievement. "It's
But it is also one of the few arenas where young black men are
the leaders and innovators. It is a field where they are admired,
encouraged to be creative, expressive and unique.
Ishmere seeks a place in that spotlight.
He wants to be a singer/actor/artist and won't hesitate to belt
out a tune or pass around the portfolio of crumpled pencil drawings
stuffed in his backpack.
"He'll do anything for attention – even if it's negative
attention," said DeRenne chorus teacher Beryl Dandy.
Ishmere wants to earn a competitive slot at Savannah Arts Academy,
the local performing arts high school. He lacks the academic
requirements for entry and the discipline and motivation of a
serious artist. But he dabbles in various genres, as if his grades
and behavior might somehow be overlooked if someone notices how
much he wants it.
He wrote a play for his church youth group; he sings; he draws.
He even spent some time trying to get acts together for a student
talent show he wanted to organize at DeRenne.
But his artistic pursuits – like his academic ones – lack
effort and guidance and seem to fizzle before they really catch
By mid-year, Ishmere had to leave DeRenne
and enroll at Scott Learning Center — an alternative school
for problematic and expelled middle schoolers.
"The problems just escalated," his mom said. "He
had a couple of teachers he had conflicts with, and it was hard
for him to get along with the kids in his classes. They tried
moving him to different classes, but it didn't get any better."
But the alternative school is another major setback. The change
means more temptation and more distractions.
On Ishmere's cross-town bus ride home, the kids are wild and
unruly. When they turned a crowded corner that ran past a liquor
store, 10 hands shot out of the bus window and flashed gang signs.
"The behavior of the kids there is worse than at DeRenne," Ishmere
said. "I just keep to myself and don't talk to anybody."
But all of that doesn't mean it's too late for Ishmere. He can
still develop the skills he needs to be among the 23 percent
of his black male peers who go to college.
He and Malcolm have four years of high school to prepare for
the demands of higher education. Given quality counseling, guidance
and academic support, students willing to take on the most challenging
courses in high school are prepared to earn two- or four-year
college degrees, according to AVID's Swanson.
It takes hard work, high expectations and focused direction,
but there is no reason why black males can't go on to earn more
than just 3 percent of all the bachelor's degrees awarded nationally,
"It's such a travesty in our schools,
and it can easily be changed."
Jenel Few is Higher Education Reporter for the Savannah
Morning News. Contact her at [email protected]