NYC's Black Male Graduation Rates: The Lost Two-Thirds

New York ranks 54th of the 63 largest U.S. school districts for graduating black boys

In this city, only 32 percent of black males graduated from high school on schedule in 2006, in contrast to 57 percent of white males. Because of that, New York City public schools ranked 54th out of 63 of the nation's largest school districts surveyed in a new national report, "Given Half A Chance: The 50-State Report on Public Education and Black Males" by the Massachusetts-based Schott Foundation for Public Education.

A five-paragraph story in the July 26 New York Post led me to the Schott Foundation and its chief researcher, Dr. Michael Holzman, for the full report. (Since 1991, the foundation has been making reports and grants, with an emphasis on the public schools in Massachusetts and New York.) Holzman tells me that 2006 is the last year for which information is available. The foundation's president, Dr. John Jackson, makes the crucial point: "When you have a 32 percent graduation rate, you're talking about the largest cadre of black male dropouts in the country—so it's a significant issue in New York."

Let alone for these lost students.

I asked Dr. Holzman why the survey focused on black males. "Nationally and in New York City and State," he said, "the graduation gender gap between black boys and black girls is greater than the gap between white boys and white girls." It's also important to recognize, he adds, that "black males in public schools are singled out for negative discipline—and are inappropriately assigned for special education." Black males can be misdiagnosed as being mentally retarded and developmentally delayed, he adds. (No wonder there's a lot less incentive to stay in school.)

This Schott survey and analysis—grossly underreported by this city's press—was an independent research project. (The foundation has a history of independent action; it supported the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, covered in these columns, that after a long fight resulted in an appellate court's mandate for increased state funding of the city's public schools.) This report on black males took into account statistics from the state and city education departments, as well as its own corollary research, to arrive at the eventual findings.

Dr. Holzman told me that he was rather surprised to learn, in Yoav Gonen's Post story, that these findings were accepted by "city education officials [who] commended the Schott Foundation for focusing on the [graduation] gap—something Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein have been highlighting for years."

Holzman was surprised at the acceptance of this report, he said, because the city's school bureaucracy "is not usually very forthcoming with this information." Having covered the schools since joining the Voice in 1958, I can testify to that reluctance.

OK, so Klein and Bloomberg have been "highlighting this gap." But why does the gap remain so huge?

In April 1975, testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, James A. Harris, the then president of the National Education Association (still the country's largest teachers' union), admitted that 23 percent of all schoolchildren in this nation failed to graduate. I added at the time that "another large segment does graduate, but as functional illiterates. Surely not all those kids are poor."

I've always remembered a stinging point made by Harris during the Senate testimony: "If 23 percent of anything else failed—23 percent of the automobiles did not run, 23 percent of the buildings fell down, 23 percent of stuffed ham spoiled—we'd look at the producer. The schools here are not blameless."

Nor are this city's schools, with only 32 percent of black males graduating.

While I have disagreed with some of Joel Klein's policies, he is trying. A product of the city's public schools, Klein feels that despite all its headaches and brickbats, this is the job of a lifetime.

And there have been successes. June saw the first graduating class from a small Klein high school, the Urban Assembly School for Law and Justice in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. According to the June 30 New York Times, of the 79 graduating seniors, many "are in the city's poorest neighborhoods and have struggled academically for years. Yet they received the kind of personal attention more commonly associated with the priciest prep schools" (emphasis added).

Another first graduation class—35 seniors—received diplomas in June from the FDNY High School for Fire and Life Safety in Brooklyn. Along with customary high-school classes, the students become grounded in fire safety, first aid, and CPR. (Talk about lifetime education!)

Two-thirds of the graduates are college-bound. One of them, 18-year-old Devon Nazario, told the Daily News (June 27): "I didn't even think I would graduate [from high school], let alone go to college." She'll be studying business management at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. And 18-year-old Sapphira Ballah-Harewood—having scored awards in social sciences, health instruction, science, and math—is off to the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

A final note from the Schott Foundation details how "the social, educational and economic outcomes for Black males have been more systematically devastating than the outcomes for any other racial/ethnic group: More chronically unemployed and underemployed . . . they die much younger, and are many times more likely to be sent to jail for periods significantly longer than males of other racial/ethnic groups." Not surprisingly: "On average, Black males are more likely to attend the most segregated and least resourced public schools."

But dig this: Black male students do not do poorly in all schools. "Black students in good schools do well," says the report. "At the same time, White, non-Hispanic students who attend schools where most of the students are Black, and their graduation rates are low, also do poorly" (emphasis added).

So where's the blame? In the poor schools! In the early 1960s, I was at a New York City Board of Education meeting at which a black father spoke. A school dropout in the South, he wound up here, after a string of menial jobs, in a dead-end factory job that paid $90 a week.

"You people, " he said to the august members of the board, "operate a goddamn monopoly like the telephone company. I got no choice where I send my child to school. And she's not learning! Damn it—that's your responsibility, the teachers, the principals. What happens? Nothing! Nobody gets fired. Nothing happens to nobody except my child."

And all these years later, only 32 percent of black males in New York City high schools graduate on time!

(Speaking of time, I'm taking some. See you in three weeks.)

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