This week, an American ritual will repeat itself. Something that within the past century has morphed into a rite of passage for armies of adolescents, who with this tradition, will declare social adulthood.
It happens the moment they put on the cap and don the gown. It becomes complete when the proud stroll across auditorium stages and gymnasium floors are finished with a handshake and a “congratulations” from a weathered educator.
It’s high school graduation season.
Parents will throw open houses, grandparents will give gifts, elated diploma holders will go on wild “swingouts” to celebrate the happiest moment of their lives so far.
But there’s a segment of the population that won’t be coming to the party, opting instead to ignore what could have been for a variety of reasons, be it poverty, disinterest in school, maybe an inability to pass 12th grade, or a combination of these and other things.
By a large margin, Black boys are not making it to their graduation parties and overall have the worst graduation rates of all groups.
A study released by the Schott Foundation for Public Education in 2012 shows that the four-year graduation rate for African-American males is 52 percent. Only a little more than half of all our Black young men get to participate in this initial American ritual. The future typically does not bode well for the other half.
The other half, those Black males who drop out sometime before graduation, are more likely to be unemployed. According to RemappingDebate.org, the rate is about 51 percent.
That half also has a higher chance of seeing the inside of a jail or prison: Research from the Brookings Institution shows that a Black man without a high school diploma has a 70 percent chance of being incarcerated.
I don’t think I have to tell you that jail and dropping out never did a thing to help the Black community.
But the other side of that are the 52 percent that do sit in an audience with their peers waiting for their names to be called and for the party to begin. What gets a Black boy to that point? What makes it a foregone conclusion to him that he will be graduating high school? Most importantly, whatever that is, how can we replicate it to increase the number?
For me it was an assumption on the part of my parents, everyone around me, and most importantly, myself, that the day would come. But I was also in an environment of people who at least graduated high school if not college. As a kid, I remember almost every summer, I went to a graduation ceremony for some relative who was taking that step. So there was no question in my mind that it would happen for me one day as well.
Still, other kids had different motivations for graduating. We all wanted to see our parents’ proud faces; we wanted to prove to the world that we could take that first step in to adulthood; we wanted to continue with our education from this point. But it was also the motivation of years prior to even entering high school that provided the impetus for most of my peers to make it through those four years.
So I talked with Mark Moore, who teaches middle schoolers and also coaches at Detroit’s Allen Academy. He told me that the formative years prior to entering ninth grade add up to the goal of getting a Black boy through high school. But a major key is also having Black male teachers as well.
“If you see someone in your class who looks like you, talks like you, that can relate to you, you’re more inclined to give it your all than for someone who doesn’t,” he said. “That I can testify to.
“I’ve only had seven Black male teachers in my life and they could get me to do anything because we shared that symbiosis.”
But he lamented the shortage of Black males in the teaching profession, something in which he is not alone. Less than 2 percent of the nation’s teachers are male and African American. But he says along with the key of having a teacher a boy can relate to, he must also be introduced to things outside of his environment and ultimately be given a sense of self-awareness.
“For Black male teachers, that’s been the struggle with Black boys. It’s challenging them to think about who they are,” Moore explained. “It’s to create a shock value to show them there is something other than what they are used to.”
It would be hard to assume that each one of the 52 percent of Black boys who do make it through high school all came out of the same formula for success. Some may never have had Black male teachers. Others may never have been exposed to things outside of their communities, or had any notion of self-awareness.
But on the other hand, there is clearly a motivating factor that got them to through high school and the things Moore described clearly make a difference. At the same time, for many of the guys who wear dress shoes, shirts and ties while grinning in gaudy photos, the singular motivation is the non-negotiable expectation of everyone in his environment that he will accomplish graduating high school.
When that happens, your son, grandson, nephew, or kid neighbor might not tell you this, but when nobody notices, he does look in the mirror and says: “I’m proud of myself.”