Durham initiative attempts to raise the bar for African-American males in public education
by Natasha Duarte
UNC Senior Editor
The Durham VOICE
On Saturday morning, many Durham high school students were sleeping in after Friday night’s basketball games. But 54 African-American 11th graders from Hillside and Southern high schools were in the Union Independent School gym, homework in hand.
It was the first of many early Saturday mornings these young men would spend at the new charter school at the corner of Dowd and North Roxboro Streets. Their schools selected them as the first group to attend an initiative called the Saturday College Preparatory Academy, designed to develop their academic and social skills.
But these students didn’t look like a typical group of 16-and 17-year-olds in school on a Saturday. There was no complaining, no sloppy dressing, no zoning out and barely even a yawn.
Instead, most of the young men were excited, even thankful to be there.
Jamal Marcus, who played football for Hillside High School’s state championship team in the fall, said the Saturday Academy will help make sure he plays in college as well.
“I think it’ll help me better myself and my future,” Marcus said. “If I want to get where I’m going, I have to make sacrifices.”
Union Independent School is dedicated to lifting up the Durham neighborhood in general, and African-American males especially, according to Jim Johnson, William R. Kenan Jr. distinguished professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.
Johnson, Chairman of the Board of Directors at Union Independent and the principal architect of the Saturday Academy, told the crowd of parents, educators and supporters who joined the 11th-graders Saturday morning, “We are doing something I think that is unprecedented in this city.”
Union Independent School opened in August 2009 as a K-2 school with about 70 students selected by lottery from the neighborhood. The school will add one grade each year up to eighth grade. UIS received charter status from the N.C. State Board of Education in fall 2010.
The Saturday Academy initiative, with support from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, is Durham’s answer to a national disparity in African-American male education, Johnson explained. The program’s activities will focus on strengthening hard academic skills and developing “soft skills,” such as communication and interview skills.
According to the Schott Foundation for Public Education’s 2010 national report, the ’07-’08 high school graduation rate for black males was 47 percent, compared to 78 percent for white males.
“Our students are being set up to fail,” said Southern High School Assistant Principal Darneise Massey. “We will not allow that.”
Massey was one of several school and community leaders to speak at the program’s kickoff.
Program Manager Mark McDaniel said the students selected to participate were “college bound, but not necessarily college ready.”
“The boys from Hillside represent a cross section of academically astute to behaviorally challenged,” said Hillside High School Principal Hans Lassiter. “But all of them have potential and promise.”
Johnson said the program was designed to improve not only high school graduation but also college graduation rates. He said the Saturday Academy’s ultimate goal was 100 percent college enrollment.
“We have 54 young men in this program,” Johnson said. “I expect 100 percent of them college access, matriculation and graduation.”
McDaniel, who works with N.C. universities, said many schools’ six-year graduation rates for African-American males are less than 50 percent.
“A lot of that has to do with kids arriving on campuses not academically prepared,” McDaniel said.
Saturday Academy Director Michael Woods helped host the kickoff on the UIS stage against a backdrop of photos featuring the school’s third-graders.
The photos were taken by the third-graders, who were mentored by UNC-CH students and VOICE staff through the PhotoTEACH program.
The kickoff coincided with a taping of UNC-TV’s “Black Issues Forum,” a weekly program discussing issues relevant to the African-American community.
The episode, set to air in May, focused on the same issue that the Saturday Academy was designed to address: the crisis of African-American males in public education.
Johnson was joined on the panel by Eric Becoats, the new superintendent of Durham Public Schools; William Buster, program officer for the Kellogg Foundation; Loren Harris, founder of Thinking Man Consulting and Donna-Marie Winn, an investigator at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill. The show was hosted by Deborah Holt Noel.
Harris said poverty and low parental education levels, combined with the fact that seven out of 10 African-American children are born into single parent headed households, creates an environment that can put students at a disadvantage.
Winn added that males tend to take on more responsibility for problems at home.
“We feel like we have the weight of the world on our shoulders,” Hillside High School junior Marcus Craig-Bradford said after the taping.
He said teachers don’t always hold black students to the same expectations as white students.
“You go home and you have issues there, and then you go to school and you don’t feel the level of support of your teachers trying to push you to do better,” Craig-Bradford said. “It’s hard. That’s why a lot of kids turn to gangs, and turn to drugs and turn to suicide, because they don’t feel that there’s anything out there for them.”
Keisha Marcus witnessed such low expectations while volunteering in her son Jamal’s class. The children were writing sentences, and the teacher was correcting the white students’ grammar but avoided correcting an African-American boy’s grammar because “that’s how his parents talk,” Marcus told the panel.
“There’s a low expectation for black student performance generally and for male student performance in particular,” Harris said.
Superintendent Becoats said there is often a cultural disconnect between teachers — many of whom are white females — and African-American male students, which prompts teachers to treat black students differently.
He said DPS is working to educate teachers on how to navigate cultural differences and better educate African-American students.
Craig-Bradford said some people make assumptions about education level and potential in African-Americans. “People are raised a certain way to think certain things,” he said.
He said he hopes the Saturday Academy will contradict some of those assumptions. “If we can go into other communities and show them that African-American males are doing this… maybe they won’t think less of us.”
Johnson identified two factors that distinguish successful students from unsuccessful students: having a parent or mentor to connect them with contacts, and being part of a “mediating institution” that connects students with the resources to get ahead.
Johnson said Saturday Academy will perform both functions by connecting students with community and global leaders.
Durham Public Schools Board of Education Chair Minnie Forte-Brown praised the partnership between the Kellogg Foundation, DPS, UNC, UIS and others that produced the Saturday Academy.
“This is collaboration at its best,” Forte-Brown said. “We’ve got parents up on a Saturday morning. We’ve got young men — football players, band members, men of promise in this room — men of color.”
Buster said the Kellogg foundation chose Durham’s program as a model for the country.
“This is an excellent opportunity for Durham to show other parts of the country, ‘how do you go deep with young people in a community that don’t have a lot of resources?’” Buster said.
Forte-Brown reassured Buster and the crowd, “Durham is going to be the model for the nation.”
The first Saturday Academy will take place Jan. 29 at Union Independent School.