Award-winning schools lifting black male achievement

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As the nation debates how to raise academic performance for black males, some schools and districts—from Baltimore to New Orleans—are quietly tackling the job. And their solutions aren’t unique to African Americans.

Take Mary McLeod Bethune Elementary, which just won Ed Trust’s Dispelling the Myth Award. Set in a New Orleans neighborhood that suffered from urban blight even before Hurricane Katrina tore through it, this all-black school far surpasses statewide outcomes. In 2009, just 64 percent of Louisiana’s elementary-age boys of all races and family incomes passed language arts—and only 21 percent reached mastery or advanced levels. As for math, 67 percent of all the state’s male grade-schoolers earned a passing level or better.

Bethune, however, delivered stellar results. That same year, 83 percent of its male students passed state language-arts assessments—with 55 percent attaining mastery or advanced. A whopping 88 percent of Bethune’s boys, meanwhile, passed the state tests in math.

Bethune’s teachers rely on a simple yet demanding strategy that could work in any school: rigorous instruction in a caring environment created by a committed principal. In practice, that means the kindergarteners who sing letters and rhymes become first-graders with robust vocabularies and third-graders who read biographies.

Across the country, Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Andrés Alonso is setting expectations both high and colorblind, as he works to stem dropout rates in a district with 88 percent black enrollment, through a campaign dubbed “Great Kids Come Back.” It’s meant knocking on the doors of students who have quit school and urging them to return—plus expanding access to advanced academic, alternative, and accelerator programs for those who do.

The accomplishments and efforts of the educators in Baltimore and at Bethune stand in sharp relief  beside the bleak national picture for black male students. In the country’s large cities, on average, a dismal 11 percent of African-American males in fourth grade reach the proficient or advanced level in reading—compared with four times that percentage for white males in the same grade.

What’s happening at Bethune (and other Dispelling the Myth winners) as well as Baltimore for black boys—and black girls—makes clear that when adults demand more of themselves and their students, kids achieve at high levels.