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.
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.