A think tank appointed by Seattle Public Schools is recommending that the district open an office devoted to the needs of black male students who, as a group, are consistently at the bottom when it comes to academic achievement.
As a group, black boys in Seattle’s public schools are consistently at the bottom when it comes to academic achievement, and high on the list of suspensions and dropout rates.
District officials, advocates and students offer several reasons why: a lack of support, for one, and many teachers who don’t understand them.
“Young black males have not been heard or given the opportunity to state how we feel,” Decorlan Roundtree Jr., an eighth-grader at South Shore K-8, said at a recent Seattle School Board meeting. “We want the opportunity to become college bound instead of in prison, or racially profiled. We want the opportunity to have someone advocate for us when we are frustrated.”
School-district officials recently have taken several new steps to try to help black boys achieve more, including a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions for elementary students, a pilot program at Aki Kurose Middle School focused on black male seventh-graders, and a push for more diversity in the district’s teaching corps.
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And it is now looking at the six recommendations from its African American Male Scholars Think Tank, a group of about two dozen district and community leaders who convened in mid-2014 to look at how to increase student achievement.
One key proposal: Establish a department devoted to the needs of black male students.
“By focusing on supporting African-American males, the student group … most negatively impacted by institutional racism, we intend to improve outcomes for all historically underserved students,” said Michael Tolley, the district’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, who is not part of the think tank but has worked with the group.
The district hasn’t made any decisions about the recommendations, but has decided to turn the think tank into an ongoing committee that will work with Superintendent Larry Nyland.
The think tank’s other recommendations include providing staff training on racial issues and extending the moratorium on suspensions and expulsions for nonviolent misbehavior to all grades.
The idea for the black-male department is based on one in Oakland, Calif., the first district in the nation to open an office devoted to that specific group of students.
Several members of Seattle’s think tank, along with district representatives from throughout Seattle and King County, traveled to Oakland this past week to learn more about what its department does. Education officials from districts across the country also attended.
“I came down here with a perspective that this is just a SPS (Seattle Public Schools) issue, but I’m leaving believing that this could be a regional, collaborative approach,” said think-tank member Donald Felder, the former principal of the district’s Interagency Academy, a network of small, alternative high schools across the city. “That is a really big thing, to know that Seattle doesn’t have to stand on a planet by itself, that this is becoming a national movement, rather than a local activity.”
The Oakland Unified School District established the office in 2010 on the theory known as “targeted universalism,” the idea that by improving the performance of the district’s lowest-performing subgroup, all students will benefit.
“This involves all people,” Seattle think-tank member Kevin Baker said. “It’s not just an African-American thing.”
Oakland has seen successes. It offers the Manhood Development Program, a class where black boys are taught by black men during the school day, with lessons drawn on historical and contemporary black culture. Students who take the course have a 25 percent higher grade-point average than the black boys who don’t, according to the district.
In Seattle, the proposal to focus on a specific group of students has raised concerns among some School Board members and others.
At a November School Board meeting,members spent nearly an hour debating whether to include a specific reference to African-American males in the board’s 2015-16 priorities. Sharon Peaslee and Betty Patu argued that including “African-American males and other underserved groups” would dismiss other historically marginalized populations by lumping them all together. Other board members, as well as think-tank members, disagreed.
“We understand there are other marginalized populations, and just because we speak on behalf of ourselves does not mean we are against any other groups,” Baker said.
Patu, who noted that she has seven grandchildren who are black males, said she hopes providing additional focus to one group can benefit others.
“It’s not just about that one group, it’s about what success we bring to that one group that could be applied to other groups,” she said.