Graduation Gap Remains Steady at 30 Percent

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President Barack Obama yesterday urged students to work hard and stay in school. But for many African American boys, staying in school has proven difficult. Despite concerted efforts to close it, Ohio’s high school graduation rate gap between black and white boys remains wide. WOSU reports on the ongoing complex problem.

Michael Williams totes a book bag as he walks with a friend toward West Broad Street. It’s a comfortable and breezy Friday afternoon, and Williams has the whole weekend ahead of him. But that’s not all he’s got ahead of him the West High School freshman has four years until graduation.

“Making hundred percents, and doing As. That’s all me. So, yeah.”

Williams is African American. If he had been in high school ten years ago, there would be a more than one in two chance he would not graduate. Back then, only 48 percent of black male Columbus City School students graduated. According to district figures, nearly 70 percent of black male students received diplomas last year.

A report released by The Schott Foundation for Public Education, this summer, reported a 37 percent gap between black and white male graduates in Ohio for the 2007-2008 school year. The Ohio Department of Education reports a lower gap – 26 percent – for that year. The state education department blames methodology for the different figures.

Regardless, the gap is sizable. It’s that way nationally, across the state and among some local districts. And it’s nothing new.

Ninth grader Michael Williams wants to join the army or navy. And when asked what the teen would say to someone who told him he has a lesser chance of graduating high school because of the color of his skin Williams emphatically unzips his back pack and pulls up a piece of paper with the word “excellent” written in the corner.

“I could just show them this because, I had this, I had did a, I had, you know, I did a hundred percent. So I gotta, you know, I just say forget them. And that’s it. You know, they’re haters,” Williams said.

Williams has a motivator, a mentor – his grandfather. He has a goal – the military. He’s on the right track.

Columbus City Schools Deputy Superintendent Keith Bell says it’s important to show students a target, like the one Williams has. For teenagers, four years is a long-time. Bell says it’s important educators engage students early and show them a possible finish line, otherwise it’s easy to lose them to the streets.

“When they can go and get that immediate gratification in a neighborhood that you may live in or you’ll get the engagement or you’ll get the love in a different way from people that may not necessarily have your best interest at heart, but you get it, and you’re not getting it in school then you have tendency to want to do or cling to those people who are giving you that gratification,” Bell said.

Statewide the gap is about 30 percent. Thirty percent fewer African American boys graduate than their white male classmates. But large urban areas seem to be faring better.

In Columbus City Schools the graduation gap is minimal – just one percent. But it fluctuates from year to year. It was as high as 12 percent ten years ago. Cincinnati City Schools reports a 16 percent gap, but it has been as high as 25 percent in recent years.

Cleveland City Schools actually reports last year more black male students graduated than white males – seven percent more.

Sam Gresham directs the Ohio Commission on African American Males. He’s not surprised at the continued gap. Gresham, who said black males are the most marginalized group of people in the country, said the issue has never been a priority.

“You can’t go to school hungry. You can’t go to school (without) materials. You can’t go to school from a dysfunctional family. You can’t come from a home where there’s no educational leadership and there are other priorities, and you expect that child to be successful in the educational environment? We’ve always blamed the teachers. We’ve always blamed the students. We have not looked at the combination of variables that create this very complex situation,” Gresham said.

Gresham said black boys need to be broken out of poverty and they need mentors.

“Until our leadership finds an urgency to do it, until we stop manipulating people of color for economic reasons, until we see that it’s important to change this situation it’s not going to change. And internally, until the African American community asserts itself, this situation is not going to change,” he said.

Columbus City Schools’ Keith Bell underscores the importance of community involvement. He said parents are children’s first teachers.

“Those first four or five years are so formative and so important that when the kids come to school if they’re behind then it makes it very difficult to hit a moving target when they come in behind,” Bell said.

Margaret Beale Spencer is a professor in the Comparative Human Development Department at the University of Chicago. She offers another reason, possibly a little more controversial, as to why black boys lag behind their white peers.

“I just think very often for black boys in our society in particular, we don’t view them as young humans perusing knowledge and a positive future. We stereotype instead, and view them as frightening, short black men as opposed to boys in pursuit of achievement,” Beale Spencer said.

Beale Spencer calls learning a risk-taking process. She said you have to be open to admitting what you don’t know. And Beale Spencer noted data indicates children who report negative teacher perception achieve at a lesser rate.

Back near West Broad Street, West High School senior Sagittarius Lamar walks with a group of friends. He has his sights on college. Probably Columbus State. Lamar wants to study accounting. What has been his approach to staying in school the last three years?

“Just staying focused. Keeping my eyes on my goal. And not worrying about what everybody else got to say or what everybody else doing, just doing me,” Lamar said.