The young men stand between the poles, feeling a pull in opposite directions.
Street. Or scholar.
“Out of the night that covers me, Black as the pit from pole to pole, I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul.”
The hardships they have already faced in their young lives enshroud them.
At a young age, they learned to deal with gangs and violence at school and in their neighborhoods. They feel pressured by peers to emulate the image of black men portrayed in rap music and the media. Some never knew their fathers. Even as they try to forge a path for their future, a few already have their own children.
All of these distractions make it difficult to do well in school. Some were already behind before they enrolled in a public school system largely ill-equipped to help them reach their full potential.
“It’s a whole different battle for us out there,” said 18-year-old Tariq Molson, who dropped out of Buffalo’s Bennett High School.
He should have graduated this year.
There are all too many people out there like Molson – hundreds, likely thousands, of young men struggling to find their way in a Buffalo school system that one study suggests graduates just one in every four black male students, one of the lowest rates in the country.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
“In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance My head is bloody, but unbowed.”
Eagle Academy Principal Jonathan Foy stands among his pupils at the Bronx school as they recite the Victorian-era poem written by William Ernest Henley.
The poet reportedly wrote “Invictus” during a hospital stay recovering from a leg amputation. The piece is about life and death, courage and survival, perseverance in the face of challenge.
The sentiments just as easily apply to life growing up in the inner city.
The young men, dressed neatly in shirts and ties, belt out the lines to a rhythm more apropos of a drum line than a poetry reading.
This is how they start each morning at the Eagle Academy for Young Men in the Bronx, the flagship of a network of schools dedicated to educating at-risk boys, virtually all of whom are young men of color.
The school was founded in 2004 by 100 Black Men of America, an international organization with a Buffalo chapter that aims to improve education and economic opportunities for men of color. Leaders of the group were alarmed by statistics that show black and Hispanic men graduate from high school in far fewer numbers than their peers of other races and genders.
Nationwide, 52 percent of young black men graduate from high school, reports the Schott Foundation for Public Education, compared with 78 percent of their white, male peers. New York has the lowest high school graduation rate for black men in the country, with just 37 percent of young black men earning a diploma, compared with 78 percent of their white, male classmates, Schott reports.
In Buffalo, the foundation reports, just 25 percent of young black men finished high school in 2008, the year the organization ranked it in the bottom 10 in the country.
So 100 Black Men designed a school to meet the needs of young black and Hispanic men growing up in the inner city. The school’s program centers on rigorous academics, a structured environment, high expectations and support for challenges they might be dealing with at home and in the community, such as gangs, drugs and street violence.
About 80 percent of students at Eagle Academy in the Bronx qualify for free or reduced price lunch, the educational system’s measure of poverty. About 62 percent of the school’s students are black and 35 percent are Hispanic.
Although its demographics are similar to the Buffalo Public Schools, Eagle Academy gets strikingly different results. Since it opened, it has consistently posted graduation rates for black male students of about 70 percent and higher.
And that starts with the simplest things, like the morning meeting.
Dressed in a crisp, sharp suit and an Eagle Academy tie, Principal Foy and other school leaders start each morning with a town hall meeting where they set the tone for the day and offer students a chance to talk about things they are dealing with in their personal lives.
Several hundred young men sit on benches in the cafeteria listening as Foy swiftly switches between giving accolades for good behavior and establishing a focus the young men will carry with them from the cafeteria to their classrooms and, hopefully, their neighborhoods.
“Good morning, brothers,” Foy says to open the meeting.
The young men meekly mumble a reply as they make their way to their feet.
Not pleased with the response, he prompts them to begin again.
“Let’s try that one more time. Good morning, brothers.”
They will keep trying until they meet his expectation: To be firm, engaged and confident. Today they do so on the second try.
When the business of the morning is complete, he prompts the students to rise for their morning recitation.
“Let’s get on our feet, brothers,” Foy says. “Let’s all stand. One, two, three. ‘Invictus.’ ”
Each morning the young men recite the lines.
“I am the master of my fate,” they chant. “I am the captain of my soul.”
Rituals like the town hall meeting are just as much a part of Eagle Academy’s success as academics. Culture is critical, and these traditions establish a structure and routine most students crave but may find only at school.
“It’s how we center the boys at the very beginning of the day,” Eagle Academy Foundation President and CEO David C. Banks said. “These little small things make a difference.”
Building a school culture begins well before students start their first year at Eagle Academy. Incoming students attend a summer program where teachers not only gauge their academic abilities for the coming year, but reinforce the school’s high expectations.
Students are grouped into one of four houses – essentially teams – named for notable black and Hispanic leaders. The school doesn’t shy away from more controversial figures that are significant in their students’ culture: Che Guevara and Malcolm X have houses named for them, as do Roberto Clemente and Barack Obama.
Throughout the year students earn points for their house with accomplishments such as good attendance, doing their homework, community service, maintaining good grades and showing improvement. They can also lose points for bad behavior.
The system sets up students to work with and for each other – and to hold each other accountable.
“This really takes care of the boys’ desire to belong,” Foy said. “Almost like, to take from negative culture, a gang. Or more positive, a fraternity.”
Each grade level has its own unique tie, which the boys must earn by completing the criteria to advance to the next grade level.
“It may seem like a subtle thing, but those kinds of things are important in setting a standard and letting them know it’s not a game,” Foy said. “It’s a lot of tradition. It’s a lot of rituals. Part of the academic success comes with a culture that’s different from a regular school.”
Photos of students working on classroom projects and attending special events cover the hallways alongside images of black leaders and posters advertising special opportunities, including a trip to Iceland. The Eagle Academy Foundation, which was created to support the schools, helps raise money to provide the young men with those opportunities.
“The walls should speak,” Foy said. “The walls should tell a story of who you are.”
Along the top row hang pictures of graduates. Their smiles beam from the wall, young black and Hispanic men donning graduation caps and gowns, proudly clutching their diplomas.
The students, looking neat in their navy blue pants, dress shirts and ties, sit in rows of desks covered with notebooks, worksheets and calculators. As the teacher tosses out questions during a lesson on exponents, the boys shoot up their hands to answer.
This ninth-grade algebra class at Eagle Academy could just as well have been in any of Buffalo’s prestigious private high schools.
Here, the young men learn they have a choice that may not be as evident in the mass media, their homes or most other classrooms in urban school districts: Street. Or scholar.
For some in this advanced class, the pull between the two poles is already strong.
One young man who raises his hand to answer the teacher’s question is already in trouble with the law. The school knows about the situation and is trying to guide him through the criminal justice system and in the right direction for his future.
He is engaged during this lesson, paying attention and readily offering answers to the teacher’s questions.
Foy knows it may not take much to steal that focus.
“Part of it is knowing the stress on each of our students,” Foy said. “We’re hoping he’ll eventually come over to our side. We’ve seen it.
“We’ve also seen kids go the other way.”
Those stressors usually start in the surrounding neighborhoods of the Bronx, communities ridden with crime and violence that touch many of the students. The walk to school alone takes students down neglected streets marked by boarded-up windows, abandoned buildings and graffiti-covered storefronts.
“There are good parts and bad parts of the Bronx,” said Zimba Hamm, a junior who wants to attend the University at Buffalo. “We grew up in this environment. The areas I come from are not that good. I wouldn’t go out at 11 or 12 at night.”
Eagle Academy opened its first school in the Bronx as a traditional high school to serve ninth- through twelfth-graders.
But leaders quickly realized they needed to start their work earlier. Its schools now start in the sixth grade, an age when boys may already be battling negative influences.
To try to help students find the right path, Eagle Academy matches each student with a mentor who meets with them on a regular basis.
The staff includes many men of color who serve as positive role models.
Banks, who is now director of the Eagle Academy Foundation, has a rapport with the students. During one recent visit, he stops to reprimand three boys for running in the hallways.
“Hey, hey, hey,” he cautions the group.
The boys not only heed his warning, but offer up a cheerful “Hey, Mr. Banks” to greet him.
“Our mantra for 100 Black Men is ‘They will be what they see,’ ” Banks said. “If all they see are hustlers on the street, it should be no surprise which road they go down.”
Older students are also mentors through a program called Eagles at Flight that allows them to guide their younger classmates on field trips to places such as the Statue of Liberty and art museums.
Students also have the option to stay longer at school to work on academics and participate in extracurricular activities, including culinary and chess clubs as well as sports such as lacrosse.
More time at school also means less time on the streets.
Parents and mentors help reinforce the Eagle Academy’s college-going message, which is evident in Kareem Donaldson’s classroom where juniors and seniors spend part of their week learning about the college admissions process and getting help with their applications. Juniors and seniors have time built into their schedules for half of the school year to work with Donaldson and other volunteers.
Donaldson’s room is covered with college pennants, everything from local New York City schools to Ivy League institutions. He invites some of these colleges to give seminars and coordinates field trips to various campuses, which for some students offers a first chance to travel outside of their neighborhoods.
“It keeps you going,” said Roshane Gray, a senior who plans to attend SUNY Buffalo State. “It gives you a reason to stay in school and stay off the streets.”
The questions posted on the screen prompt the students to contemplate their heritage. Students in this eighth-grade humanities class spent the year studying topics such as the slave trade, the Harlem Renaissance and race and culture in this country. They read the works of black scholars and leaders including Marcus Garvey and Booker T. Washington.
Now, they will decide whether they agree or disagree with them.
• What should be the place of the Negro (“Black and Brown people”) in White America?
• What were the strengths and weaknesses of each scholar’s plan for improving the Negro?
• What philosophy would be more acceptable to White America then? White America now?
The questions that guide the discussion are edgy, but they force the students to think about their identity, culture and place in society – historically and now. Some educators argue that seeing this reflection of themselves and their history in the classroom will better engage them in learning.
A group of six boys sit in a circle in the center of the room preparing to make their case. The rest of the class sits in another circle around the perimeter to observe and evaluate how well they make their argument.
The first student critiques Booker T. Washington, who was among the last generation of black leaders born into slavery. Washington discouraged blacks from fighting to end segregation, urging instead the creation of long-term educational and economic opportunities.
“People said that he would please the white people, and it would please them, too,” the student said. “The only thing wrong with his argument was he said it is too much race pride that leads to segregation.”
The conversation shifts to a debate on what it means to “cast down your buckets” and whether that philosophy advanced or hindered civil rights for African-Americans. The phrase, from Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” speech, reflected his belief that blacks should make the most of what they had and not agitate for civil rights.
The next student goes on to criticize Garvey, the author who promoted the return of African-Americans to Africa.
“He was telling people to do stuff that he would not,” the student said, criticizing Garvey for staying in the United States and promoting his ideas.
“If you’re going to start a movement, you have to be the epitome of what you believe and you want to see happen.”
“Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the horror of the shade, And yet the menace of the years Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.”
The cost of academic failure is high for young men of color – and their communities – with statistics showing that black and Hispanic men who do not finish high school fuel a pipeline to the unemployment office and prison.
The Brookings Institute reports that there is a nearly 70 percent chance a black man who drops out of high school will be imprisoned by his mid-30s. That is more than triple the risk for white men who don’t finish high school.
Arlee Daniels Jr. sees this fallout in the streets of Buffalo, often in the early hours of the morning when he is called from his sleep to mediate a dispute at risk of becoming violent. Through his work with the Stop the Violence Coalition, he sees what happens when young men start to stumble down the wrong path.
And he tries to catch them before they head too far in the wrong direction.
Some of these young men end up in his classroom at the YMCA on William Street. This is where he spends three nights a week working with students who have dropped out of school to help them earn their GED certificate.
Daniels uses many of the same strategies found at Eagle Academy. When students enter the program, he reinforces his rules and routine, setting a tone that he will not accept the same behaviors – such as fighting and poor attendance – that caused many of his students to drop out of school in the first place.
Students also participate in a mentoring program, which allows Daniels to address the underlying issues that may inhibit their success.
“We want to make sure we address whatever it is that caused it to not work out the first time,” Daniels said. “We don’t want the same thing to happen here.”
A number of his students far surpass the minimum requirements needed to earn their GED. Most go on to continue their education or enter the workforce.
Yet he knows this work is just triage for a much larger, problem. It does nothing to prevent the scores of young black men from dropping out in the first place.
Daniels said he once ran a similar mentoring program at Buffalo’s East and Bennett high schools, catching at-risk students before they dropped out of the system. He and other male role models underwent training through a national program and then worked with some of the district’s most at-risk students.
Daniels says the program yielded results but was cut because of budget problems. The district now offers other programs at those schools, but students still struggle.
Molson, the Bennett dropout, and the other young men in Daniels’ class offer plenty of suggestions for how the Buffalo schools could do better. Smaller classes with more individual attention. Uniforms to eliminate fighting and posturing over clothing. More vocational programs and hands-on projects. Single-sex classes to eliminate distractions from young women.
The students in Daniels’ class also acknowledge that their academic struggles start with distractions outside of the classroom. Popular culture that paints an image of black men as ballers, thugs or gangsters. Broken homes and absentee parents who gave them little guidance. The temptation to trade school for a life of drugs and violence that might be, at least for now, more lucrative.
Not knowing whether they will survive the journey from their neighborhood to school each morning.
“These kids don’t even want money; they just want to kill you,” Molson said. “They’ll put a gun to your head and pull the trigger.”
Street. Or scholar.
All of these factors weighed on Molson until the day he finally got up and walked out of Bennett for the last time.
“One day I was just getting ready to take a global studies exam,” he said. “I just felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere. I just got up and walked out and never went back.
“I just felt like there was something else for me.”
“It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. quoted parts of “Invictus” during his sermons. Nelson Mandela read the poem to fellow inmates during his 27 years of imprisonment for fighting apartheid in South Africa.
President Obama recited part of the poem to conclude his remarks at Mandela’s memorial service.
Now, Banks – the founding principal – stands on the patio of Eagle Academy beneath a sculpture that represents the inside of a slave ship.
It is the morning after poet Maya Angelou’s death, and he wants the students to pay their respects to her, as well as those others who paved the way for them.
“The images that are in here are the images you need to be mindful of every day,” Banks tells the young men. “The images of our ancestors being brought here in slave ships. It’s important that you know that each of those images represents someone who was kidnapped, and you understand many of the people on those ships never made it.
“Every time you pass this you should remember why we built this school for you.”
Following the academy’s early success, the Eagle Academy Foundation expanded to five campuses in New York City and Newark. This fall they will open a sixth branch in Staten Island. They selected the toughest neighborhoods with the greatest need, using incarceration data to identify those communities that send the most men to prison. And they set out to create a model that could be replicated in other public school systems.
“We did not want to open as a charter,” Banks said. “We thought it was important to establish a model that worked with union teachers and still meets the expectations. We wanted it to be a public school and show that you could have an innovative school in a traditional public system.”
Over the years, the school has welcomed educators from across the country interested in its methods.
“The reality is, everywhere in the country you have this problem,” Banks said. “How do you get black boys to be successful?”
The foundation now plans to open the Eagle Institute to offer training to teachers. The foundation also wants to identify a handful of urban school systems committed to implementing its program on a deeper level. In those places, the foundation would provide support staff on site to help with the roll out. The foundation is aiming to open the institute in 2015.
The program on paper is just part of the equation, though.
Banks knows Eagle Academy’s success comes with empowering students to make the right choices, to choose the right direction, even when lost in the darkness.
“You don’t have shackles on you,” he tells the young men that morning on the patio. “Now we have our freedom.
“What do you do with your freedom?
“One more time. In the spirit of Maya Angelou. ‘Invictus.’ ”
The young men’s voices rise and carry through these beleaguered neighborhoods of the Bronx, from the school into their communities.
Street. Or scholar.
This is where they make that decision.
“I am the master of my fate,” the boys repeat before heading off to their classes.
“I am the captain of my soul.”