One out of every three students in Buffalo Public Schools is a black or Hispanic male and, as a whole, they perform worse than their white peers in both math and English language arts.
A smaller percentage of them graduate high school, too.
If Buffalo is ever going to raise the academic bar in its troubled schools, the district will have to tackle the achievement gap facing its boys and young men of color.
As the Buffalo School District prepares for the start of a new school year, it is taking a small, first step by partnering with a predominately black college to begin chipping away at a problem plaguing not only Buffalo, but the nation.
The new partnership between the Buffalo schools and Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn hopes to tap into a pot of money allocated for the White House initiative, My Brother’s Keeper.
Introduced by President Obama in 2014, My Brother’s Keeper provides funding for programs that intervene in the lives of black and Hispanic youth and set them on course toward a better educational future. New York was the first state to fund an expansion of the Obama program by including $20 million in its budget for this year.
The gap, in fact, has become an integral part of the larger conversation going on right now around the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It’s an absolutely essential group, given our demographics,” said Superintendent Kriner Cash. “Throughout my career, that’s the group you have to lift the highest and the furthest – and you have to do it the fastest.”
From Boston to Los Angeles, school districts, colleges and community organizations have taken up the challenge and implemented a game plan – from developing better young readers, improving school attendance, lowering suspensions, raising graduation rates, preparing young men of color for college or equipping them with skills for the work force.
The initiative relies heavily on mentors to steer the students and keep them on track.
“The real issue is who is the caring adult in their lives that is, in fact, giving guidance and direction to what those young people are doing?” said Rudolph F. Crew, president of Medgar Evers. “That’s the piece so many of these young boys actually need.”
"Poverty is one of the driving factors"
The graduation rate for white males at public high schools in the United States was 80 percent during the 2012-13 school year, according to a 2015 report by the Massachusetts-based Schott Foundation for Public Education.
That’s compared to 65 percent for Hispanic males and 59 percent for black males, the report showed.
In fact, the racial divide has only grown, with the gap between blacks and whites actually widening by 3 percentage points since the foundation’s last report in 2012. The Schott report also showed proficiency scores in both math and reading were lower for blacks.
Those familiar with the issue say the underlying causes of the achievement gaps are deeply rooted in economic and social disadvantages between the races, from poor housing to less access to health care to fewer enrichment opportunities outside of school.
University at Buffalo professor Henry L. Taylor Jr. referred to it as “structural racism” – a less overt, built-in system of inequality between whites and people of color that perpetuates the problem when it comes to school achievement.
“It’s really a multiple set of factors,” said Ray Hart, research director with the Council of the Great City Schools, an organization representing the nation’s large urban districts, including Buffalo.
“Obviously,” Hart said, “poverty is one of the driving factors.”
In Buffalo, 25 percent of the roughly 32,000 students enrolled in city schools in 2014-15 were black males; 9 percent were Hispanic males. The patterns are the same.
The graduation rate was 68 percent for white males in the district, the most recent figures from the State Education Department show. That’s compared to 53 percent for black males and 50 percent for Hispanic males.
The racial inequalities are similar when it comes to scores in math and English language arts for boys in grades three through eight, the data shows.
Recognizing the troubling academic trends, the Council of the Great City Schools instituted a strategy to help schools improve the academic outcomes for males of color at around the same time that Obama rolled out the White House initiative. Researchers at the lobbying group have started compiling data to try to measure how effective such efforts have been, Hart said.
Taylor, however, questioned programs like My Brother’s Keeper, which would help only a handful of youth, as opposed to using funds to improve poor neighborhood conditions – a main contributing factor to the achievement gaps in the schools.
“There is an abundance of data that demonstrates neighborhood effects will produce undesirable educational outcomes,” said Taylor, director of the Center for Urban Studies at UB.
This discussion about how to help young men of color is a hot topic across the U.S. and has become intertwined with the larger conversation about Black Lives Matter. While the activist movement has been focused on police violence toward blacks, the campaign has grown to associate more broadly with issues regarded as systemic racism.
The local chapter of Black Lives Matter on Monday partnered with religious leaders, district parents and a charter school network to sponsor a town hall meeting at a city church, where they demanded a better education for Buffalo’s kids.
One of the problems for Buffalo’s boys and young men of color is that there aren’t enough African-American male teachers in the classroom who can relate to them, said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, which cosponsored the town hall event.
Only 62 of the 3.608 teachers – fewer than 2 percent – are African-American men, according to district figures. Just 25 are Hispanic men.
“There’s a lot of serious issues going on in our country right now and, as far as we’re concerned, education is at the root of the problem – and education is the solution to the problem,” Radford said.
Mentors from a distance
Medgar Evers is a predominately black institution in the City University of New York system founded in 1970 and named after the African-American civil rights leader who was assassinated in 1963. The college has more than 7,000 students.
The partnership with Buffalo schools began when Cash and Crew were included on a state panel focused on the issue of improving outcomes for boys of color. Cash also worked for Crew in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools and the two are friends.
The two school leaders envision a collaboration that would use Medgar professors and students as mentors for boys of color in Buffalo.
“Part of the dilemma, in my mind, is we’ve become such a fast, quick and in a hurry culture that these young people are expecting everything to come to them with a minimal amount of work,” Crew said.
“Many of these young boys are out there trying to figure out, ‘Where is the significant adult in my life who will keep me at the grindstone when I really want to quit?” he said.
While details of the grant proposal are still being ironed out, the program would target a selected handful of boys in a particular Buffalo school or schools who would be connected to a Medgar mentor. It’s not clear how this long-distance relationship would work, but Cash said it would include school and campus visits, as well as regular communication by phone, text message and computer.
Among the goals, Crew said, are to help raise their academic confidence and expectations about their options – their futures. The intent is not only to target high school students, Crew said, but to head “downstream” and instill those high standards in boys of color as young as middle school.
“The family has got to be the other pivotal point of this work and we’ve got to keep them accountable,” Cash said. “Parents and families have got to be and stay at the table.”
Medgar already has a similar pipeline program in roughly 80 schools across Brooklyn and cite those efforts as a reason for the decrease in the number of Medgar freshman needing remedial math and English over the past three years.
The partnership with Buffalo would create a natural upstate feeder for the college.
“Now,” said Crew, “it may not be that all of them come to me, but in my mind that’s secondary.”
Cash believes Buffalo will benefit from partnering with a college where the student profile mirrors that of many students in this district. The superintendent also hopes it will broaden the students’ horizons and expose them to what’s outside of Buffalo.