The black male lawyers, doctors, accountants, professors, and other social icons are in our schools right now. Some might disagree, saying that black male students are the lowest-performing students in our schools. How could they possibly reach a high level of success? My answer is that if they can’t do it in Oak Park, they can’t do it anywhere.
I read, with great interest, the two Wednesday Journal pieces on LeeAndra Khan, Brooks School principal. She has courageously directed the school’s attention to under-performing black male students and is trying to get more of them academically motivated.
This is to be commended. Every time a black male student’s academic performance is improved, everyone benefits. The school’s test scores go up, there are fewer discipline problems, and, hopefully, a life is changed for the better. When we read about successful black males who emerged from poverty in our society, usually a teacher or mentor is identified — the one person who made a difference in his life. The person who believed in them, unconditionally.
One of the articles discusses the lack of black male teachers and administrators in the school system. We can correct this in Oak Park by starting in kindergarten or pre-school to make learning a desired goal for black male students. The students who love education may see it as a professional goal and want to become teachers themselves. Right now there is a shortage of black males majoring in education.
What are the impediments to equality in the classroom?
1. Economics: Census data shows us that black and white incomes in Oak Park are not equal. More black families are low-income. More live in female-headed, single-parent households, lacking the benefit of a second income. Lack of family income means less enrichment for students. While white students are getting music/dance lessons, sports camps, museum visits, travel to foreign lands, and other benefits, black students may be lacking the funds to provide for enrichment. Perhaps we can direct attention to this by providing Saturday or after-school enrichment programs that will serve to equalize the playing field.
2. Lack of role models for higher education: Black male students may not have role models for attending college and are often the first in their families to do so. We need to provide more direct exposure to black males with advanced degrees who can mentor the students.
3. Lack of a father figure: Do we connect discipline problems with confusion about appropriate male behavior? If the image of a male is derived from TV, films or other media, the tough guy may be the one to be emulated. Let’s learn more about the Percy Julians of the world. We named a school after him. Let’s teach about his courage, persistence, intelligence and other characteristics that led to his success.
4. Lack of caring from the community: It is easy to look at black male students acting out on the street and judging them as hopeless instead of looking at them as children who need our attention and kindness. It starts with one student and one adult. Let’s change the way we view young black males and view them as our responsibility.
Let’s follow Principal Khan’s approach and think of ways we can make positive change.
This list is by no means comprehensive. But opening the dialogue and not labeling each other as “racist” or “insensitive” is a first step. Let’s hope that the teachers at Brooks and other schools will view their teaching day as an opportunity to change the life of young black male students who may need extra help to catch up with more fortunate students privileged to live in households that have done everything to encourage their academic achievement.
Oak Park can be the leader. We can demonstrate to the country that every student is important to us and that we will choose the humane path to providing the best education for all.
Roberta Raymond is the founder of the Oak Park Regional Housing Center and a co-founder of the OPRF Alumni Association.