America’s Real Racism

Since January there has been a steady flow of parents, mostly single mothers or grandmothers, searching for an educational alternative for their sons, all of whom are boys of color.  They come to San Miguel Academy of Newburgh because they’ve heard that boys do better in our environment than any other place in the city. Newburgh, nestled on the banks of the Hudson River 60 miles north of New York City, bears the signature of being the “Murder Capital of New York,” and one of our nation’s most distressed urban centers.

When a mother arrives at our door, they always have a report card in hand and they all express their frustration with their son’s sudden decline in the classroom. Fourth grade is typically the juncture where most American children begin to fall behind their peers in other first world nations globally. For minority males in the United States, the downturn is fast-paced and disastrous. 

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A glimpse at the typical report card brings clarity about the plight of the minority male in our urban public schools. One mother presented me with a fourth grade report that had the following grades: Language Arts 54, Math 62, Reading 54, Science 48, Social Studies 48, Writing 51. Off to the side of the grades are three words followed by three blank spaces:  Promoted ____ Retained ______ Placed _____.

If you are wondering about the fate of the boy in question, he was “Placed,” that is to say he was conveniently positioned in the next grade, even though the basic skills for academic success are plainly missing. A set up for certain failure, and a major reason why low-income boys of color graduate at a less than 30 percent rate from the local public high school.

If this were not bad enough, what follows on this report card speaks to an attitude, if not a systemic hubris. More than half of the white sheet of paper is empty, inviting the teacher to make an observation or comment. In this case the teacher wrote in large cursive letters, “Have a great summer!”

These are America’s disposable children. Not worthy of a substantive remark by the person who just spent 180 days with the child. Professionals who wipe their hands clean of a vulnerable child, setting him up for drop out, most likely before the tenth grade. These are the children being left behind.

The Trayvon Martin case invited a concert of commentary on race in America. TV talking heads weighed in, local demonstrations took place and even President Obama held a news conference on the racial prejudice that men of color face in our nation. While there is no unanimity on whether race played a factor in the death of the Florida teenager, what is unequivocal is that boys of color are referred for special education services at a rate far exceeding their peers, punished more for bad behavior, drop out before high school graduation at alarming rates, and are less likely to enjoy a college education than any other person in the United States.

This is a racial problem of epic proportions, and one of which we are all familiar. The incarceration rate for Hispanic and black men is ample evidence that we have a flawed system that daily and habitually turns a blind eye to one of our nation’s most pressing needs; yet we hear hardly a word about this catastrophic breakdown in our public education system.

Our classes at San Miguel Academy are small by intention. Our students all receive the individuation they need to be successful in school. Our environment is serene, our boys feel safe, and above all, they know the adults who surround them daily care about them. The formula is simple, and we do it for far less money than the public school does, while having 33 percent more class time for our kids than their counterparts in public school.

It can be done, and it is being done, not only by “Nativity” style schools like ours, but by other educational reform movements as well.

Our country needs a spokesperson for this epidemic. A person who will not proliferate an attitude of victimization, but rather a person of courage who will challenge school superintendents and administrators, teachers and school staff, to be held accountable for every child in their care.

“Have a great summer,” is not an acceptable sendoff for a child who knows he’s performing below standard. At the very least it is a reckless and irresponsible response to a child who is begging for assistance.

Summer will end, and so too will the nation’s conversation on race. What will not cease is the endless stream of boys who are simply not being served according to their needs. “Placed” children will soon become displaced young adults, who will look for meaning and acceptance in the illegitimate dark corners of our society. 

Elie Wiesel called us to never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. Who will honor Trayvon’s memory by speaking out?

The Rev. Mark Connell is president of San Miguel Academy of Newburgh.

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Marie Rehbein
4 years 4 months ago
Thank goodness that there is someone helping these children. Too bad there isn't enough of these types of educators. Out of curiosity, how much does a child like the one whose grades were listed improve in this more caring setting, and does he need additional services or is it just a matter of having had indifferent or incompetent teaching?
mark connell
4 years 4 months ago
Thanks, Marie. We individualize for each student. That is why we keep our class sizes intentionally small, 15-17 students. Because it is challenging for the master teacher to get all the children on grade level, we have lots of added support. Volunteers, special education teachers provided by the district, etc. We also spend 33% more time with our students than their counterparts in the public school. Children such as ours are typically 18 months behind non-economically deprived kids when they enter kindergarten. You must remember that the effects of poverty cause all types of learning deficits. If you are interested in the subject I recommend Eric Jensen's "Teaching with Poverty in Mind." Finally, I am happy to tell you that we are able to get nearly all of our guys on grade level, or beyond, by graduation day.
Vince Killoran
4 years 4 months ago
I think that's wonderful--but this line caught my eye: "Our classes at San Miguel Academy are small by intention." That cost money. I'm pleased to learn that SMA doesn't take public funds. The flood of charter & cyber schools are already contributing to the desperate status of many of our nation's public schools. As for me, I back the strengthening of the public school--i.e., one of the last civic spaces left in the increasingly privatized nation.
mark connell
4 years 4 months ago
Vince, I do not disagree. By existing in the city of Newburgh we have lessened the burdens of district teachers without taking any of the district revenue. We run at a per pupil cost of about 20% less than the public school while providing 33% more class time for the most underserved students. I believe we provide a template for public schools to consider because our outcomes are better and we spend less money doing it.
Marie Rehbein
4 years 4 months ago
One area that does not get enough attention is teacher development. Young, inexperienced teachers are often the ones who end up leading classrooms in poorer areas while the more experienced teachers are able to pick positions teaching children in less difficult conditions. Your school could teach teachers, I would think, to good effect.
Bill Mazzella
4 years 4 months ago
Mark, How long has your school been around? Do you follow them after they graduate? Please share all the details you can about your school. I am not sure what one teacher or even a principal can do when the majority of the students are in difficulty. How can we specifically help?
mark connell
4 years 4 months ago
Thanks, Bill. You can find out about our school at www.newburghsanmiguel.org. And, yes, we have a fantastic graduate support program. Since all our kids are first generation learners it is imperative that we support them as they try to access higher education. So far its working!
J Cosgrove
4 years 4 months ago
Couple things? Is this a Christian Brothers' school? I have supported some other San Miguel schools which were under the auspices of the Christian Brothers. I believe Miguel was the first Western hemisphere Christian Brother saint. I believe the title is way out of line. In a sense the article blames the US public education system when it should be blaming those whose policies created the underclass and subsequent school policies. It is great what you are doing but it is only a drop in the bucket compared to the damage social policies have had on the underclass. Till this is addressed it will only get worse.
Marie Rehbein
4 years 4 months ago
There have always been poor people -- check your Bible. The point is that the public education system has not been effective with respect to the boys that have been brought to this school. It doesn't assign blame for the circumstances of these children to the US public education system. The poverty that makes it difficult for these children to learn and difficult for teachers to be effective with them is not the result of our social policies either. Our social policies are an attempt to address the existing and on-going problems of poverty. You might debate the effectiveness of these, but trying to assign blame is a fairly useless activity.
mark connell
4 years 4 months ago
J, you are correct. At our beginnings we had LaSalle brothers helping out, hence the name. Unfortunately they did not have enough brothers to sustain the mission. We now run independent of any religious order. As to public policy, that is the issue. My concern is the seeming lack of concern for an "underclass" which is so far behind academically, and yet near silence with respect to the phenomenon.
Robert O'Connell
4 years 4 months ago
Doing nothing is the problem: speaking out, sharing effective practices, and never surrendering to indifference makes a difference. Thanx for a good report!
katherine schlaerth
4 years 4 months ago
MOre schools like this and more concerned parents and grandparents are needed. However, the absense of fathers in the Black community is the real issue. While it is true that the legacy of slavery may have led to the absense of fathers,the need for paternal guidance is the one elephant in the room that noone will address. Our half Black president instead espouses making the oposite sexed parental family even more rare for all ethnicities. Males throughout history have needed the special attributes that fathers posess and instill to grow into strong upright men (females need fathers also) but so many youths in the Black community have "blow-by" sperm donors and now this template is expanding to other ethnic groups as well. Thanks to the Rev, Mark Connell and his faculty for being truly "fathers" for boys who so badly need them. But the national conversation has to get away from accusations of racial prejudice and concentrate on how to fix the problem of fatherlessness in the Black and other communities
Lorence Ford
4 years 4 months ago

You left out Jim Crow and ongoing institutionalized racial bias - especially in our criminal justice system - in your second sentence. And “Our half Black president” [Sic.] would have had to sit in the back of the bus 40 years ago. While you are right to note that the lack of parental involvement may be a component of this issue, I think you’ve falsely assumed causality. While educational achievement and marriage rates are correlated in the US; the same can’t be said of ethnicity. This article shows how insidious the yoke of racism and injustice is in our society. I can’t imagine why attacking those who suffer for their suffering is a moral option.

Marie Rehbein
4 years 4 months ago
I don't think that homosexual marriage is under the control of President Obama. If you have been paying attention, you will have noticed that the push to homosexual marriage preceded President Obama's acceptance of it as a civil right. In any case, it was the Supreme Court that found there to be no obstacle to homosexual marriage. Furthermore, homosexual men are still men, and they can raise children just as effectively as celibate Christian religious. The idea is that children are given the support, attention, and security they need when they are adopted. If the conversation has to get away from racial prejudice, then you propose it moves on to prejudice against homosexuals?
Jim McCrea
4 years 4 months ago
Every gay man and every lesbian woman that I know ... and I know many ... had a heterosexual father and mother. So much for the much-claimed, unsupportable idea that opposite-sex parents somehow are "cures" for homosexuality.
Christopher Rushlau
4 years 4 months ago
What is the unreal racism to which the headline refers?
Marie Rehbein
4 years 4 months ago
I believe it is the connection between poverty and inadequate education, and the fact that black children are disadvantaged by both disproportionately to other children in the United States.
Marie Rehbein
4 years 4 months ago
I believe it is the connection between poverty and inadequate education, and the fact that black children are disadvantaged by both disproportionately to other children in the United States.

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