Another graduation season, another grim reminder of the persistence of the “achievement gap.” What is to be done?
Recently, President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama spoke to this gap in commencement addresses. The president urged Morehouse men to “set an example.” Mrs. Obama urged Bowie College graduates to avoid the lure of being “ballers and rappers.”
Important messages, to be sure, but addressed to the wrong audience. These African-American graduates had already figured out what they needed to do to beat the odds and succeed in school. Here on the ground, however, where the odious process of “pushing out” students of color begins, I see a need for a different and controversial approach.
When I started my job as a “recruiter” for my college, I followed the well-worn path for my profession. I went to college fairs, handing out brochures, talking about the programs and opportunities we offer, and urging students and their families to consider us when they thought about colleges. Yet very few African-American males would talk to me; the ones who would come up often were reluctantly trailing a parent who seemed more interested than their child.
Once I was visiting a local high school with a couple of recruiters from other colleges. We had set up and were waiting for students when three young brothers came by, arguing loudly in the language of the streets. A teacher was following them and ignoring their rude talk. I had to step up, to challenge the young men for acting in ways that were not appropriate for school; I also asked myself why no one at the school was confronting them about their actions.
My conclusion: They and many other young black men had already been written off by educators, tracked into the “ballers and rappers” — or, worse yet, convicts — career track. Traditional recruitment was, for them, like asking them to live in a different country.
I soon realized a different approach was needed to address students of color, particularly African-American males. So I changed my approach from “recruiting” to “outreach.”
My outreach efforts focus on encouraging students to see college as a realistic future for them. For African-American males, the first step is to explore their identity — and their history. Too many of those who attend my first-step workshops tell me that this is the first time anyone has asked them about their dreams and strengths.
Over a century ago W.W.B. Dubois captured society’s view of “Negroes” with the question: “How does it feel to be a problem?” I am saddened by the fact that this question can still be asked today.
Historically, education has been a tool for liberation in the African-American community. Often at great personal risk, leaders established schools and promoted literacy, sometimes challenging laws prohibiting this education. Contrasted with present-day education, which too often either ignores or criminalizes our young men, this historic fight for education is a proud chapter in our history.
Exploring this history presents a challenge to some of our most cherished national myths. Yet confronting these truths is necessary if we are ever to break the “I am not college material” beliefs of so many of these young brothers.
This workshop, combining personal and cultural exploration is an important first step. In order to be successful, however, I have found this step must be part of my ongoing effort to build relationships with these students through additional workshops and meetings.
Here I would echo the president’s words. We need to show ourselves as examples for students. Those of us who have succeeded must confront a whispered myth in American culture – that black folks are intellectually inferior.
For my efforts, this workshop is a vital first step, one that lays the groundwork for my further outreach work. If we truly want to overcome the achievement gap, calls for our youth to act appropriately in school must be combined with instruction in the historic value of education for African Americans.
Because of these gaps in our school system, calls for our young men to succeed solely by their own efforts are likely to be ineffective.
Rashad Norris is director of community engagement at Highline Community College.