Three "leading local educators"– including Interim Shelby County Schools Supt. Dorsey Hopson – on Tuesday helped participants and supporters of the Memphis Talent Dividend: College Attainment Initiative with a starting point for dealing with the higher education achievement gap among African-American males.
Hopson shared the spotlight with Dr. Lemoyne Robinson, who oversees several area charter schools as chancellor of Influence One Foundation, and Dr. Ernest L. Gibson III, a Rhodes College assistant professor of English.
The session unfolded at the Leadership Memphis Gallery downtown, with the moderating duties in the hands of Tomeka Hart, Teach for America's vice president for African-American Community Partnership, and former president of the now merged Memphis City Schools.
The Memphis Talent Dividend, Hart announced, will have it's own initiative on the African-American male, following suit with numerous other organizations and a thrust by the Obama administration. Talent Dividend participants are being asked to help develop strategy. The session Tuesday (August 20) was designed to provide context.
Statistics that speak to the status of African American males and academic achievement are shocking, Hopson said. "It's sad when you see African-American males at the bottom, or near the bottom of all those."
Such stats have to be considered in context, he said, pointing out that within 15 minutes of the South Main setting were "situations that remind you of third world countries. ...The only way to deal with extreme poverty, extreme hopelessness is educational opportunity... a better educational system."
He encouraged the Talent Dividend group to push forward with a focus on African-American males, stressing, however, that educational attainment throughout the recently merged system and all of Tennessee has to be elevated to compete globally.
The merger, one of the largest in U.S. History, is a unique opportunity to "hit the reset button on so many things," he said. A come-together effort is needed and will be even more apparent after the upcoming shift to common core standards that will have Memphis and Tennessee assessed more on a national level.
Looking at Tennessee in relation to other states, "We are going to start off very low when we stack up national against other states," he said. "I don't say that as a scare tactic or a reason to be afraid, it's just ...that our assessment of where we are shows that we have a lot of work to do."
African-American males would be helped by the collective effort, he said, outlining the three-strategies he is wed to:
• A Focus on having high-quality teachers and principals in every school;
• The need to be sure that all of the students and schools in the bottom five percent of state achievement have some intentional treatment designed to raise student achievement;
• A push to raise the literacy rate for all students.
Robinson: 'Take a risk'
While pleased with the evolution of his charter school operation, Robinson said the struggle of African-American male students stimulated him to open the first all-boys charter school in the Memphis area. He outlined a chilling scenario of what too often happens to young African-American men.
"Little boys from the age of kindergarten to the fifth grade have something," he said. "It's called mom. They hold on to her dearly," he said, while she is holding on just as tight.
"By the time he gets to middle school, he doesn't want that hug, he doesn't want that kiss (publicly)... in private they always want the love... But in sixth grade boys decide they need to be independent and, unfortunately, the people in their lives often don't understand that. And unfortunately they go through a process of the blind leading the blind. .,."
The unfortunate thing, he said, is that young men go through a lot of "'Uh, I'm the expert' and their achievement goes down. There self-awareness goes down. There self understanding (goes down)...their self esteem is greatly impacted."
A frightening number are tracked for disability and the parents are often brainwashed into believing that is what needs to happen, he said.
"He is told by the time that he is in the seventh grade that the best you will be is this high," Robinson said, putting his hand slightly below hip level. "By the time he is in the eighth grade, he hasn't moved from this point. By the ninth grade he is making a decision that 'high school is not for me. By the tenth grade he is looking for a job, 11th grade he is dropping out."
Only 52 percent of all African-American boys receive high school diplomas and less than half of those are prepared for college, he said. And of those who go off to college or stay here preparing for college, only half know what they need to do to even get into college.
In college, the process starts all over again, he said, noting that not every young man has the kind of support system and hands-on mentoring that helped him along.
Those in the room, he said, have the opportunity to be pillars of support and influence in "the lives of young men and boys you don't know...the work that you can do can not only change there lives, but change this community. That's the reality of this."
Each person, he said, should ask "what if" he/she took a risk to help and then shift from "what if to know we can."
Dr. Gibson: 'Not the exception'
Gibson, who is relatively new to Memphis, talked of noted African-American scholar W.E.B. Dubois, describing him as embodying the strength of mind and spirit to achieve in the way it is desired for African American males.
Acknowledging the disheartening statistics and accounting for racism and structural inequality, Gibson said there are some simple things that can affect closing the achievement gap.
"Young black men never see representation of what they can be," he said.
"When our black men do get past high school...when they get to college and can't look around and see anyone else like them, namely men of color, they start to pathologize themselves," he said. "They start to believe that 'I am here because I am the exception. I am here because I am the only gifted black man in this country...."
It's important not to strip such achievers of the knowledge that they are brilliant and that they are achieving certain things, he said, stressing what he had learned: "while I am exceptional, I am not the exception."
He recommended a cadre of professionals, academicians, community leaders and activists going into troubled areas to show students that "there is diversity in their possibilities," including a long list of academic achievers.
'One in person'
During a Q&A session, the panel was asked what is missing in Memphis relative to role models, given that there have been and are multiple African Americans in leadership positions.
Robinson said the key is access.
"You hear so many politicians talking about 'I grew up in that community.'... Well, when was the last time you've been to that community. ...Other than sitting on a panel and discussing that value (of education), when was the last time you went in and added value?
"We need not a reflective mirror in the paper, or on TV, but one in person."