Black like me — and successful

Last month, a study of 322 students in 19 countries was released that revealed something I’ve witnessed every day as an educator and an advocate: Children want to learn skills that will prepare them for their careers.

Reading the study, I could relate to its findings on multiple levels — as a physician who left medicine to become a public school teacher, a community organizer and the chief operating officer of Project Pneuma, a nonprofit that works to empower youth in the city of Baltimore. I did my own survey of 300 students in my community, and they felt the same way, with one small difference: Their hope was to be taught those skills by someone who looked like them.

Part of Project Pneuma’s program involves helping our boys envision a future where they can succeed. That often entails providing them with role models and road maps for success.

I’ve helped hundreds of students of color from Baltimore City Public Schools pursue college health science tracks in the last six years. But there’s only so many students we can target. And we can’t help but feel like the school system is working against us by not providing real-life examples that celebrate the accomplishments of black Americans.

Increasing teacher salaries and providing school districts with more money, while needed, won’t solve the problem of the achievement gap for black students. Students of color need more than training. They need role models and a curriculum that inspires them.

By the time I graduated from high school in 1993, I could have written a novel on the negative stereotypes and seemingly insurmountable obstacles that I faced as a young black male in America. I was born to a teen-age mother in inner-city Detroit about a decade before the crack epidemic devastated the city. Violence was never far from my doorstep: Both my biological father and my uncle were murdered.

I was academically advanced, but my needs were often cast aside while teachers focused on lower performing students. I found the classwork and curriculum uninspiring to say the least.

My knowledge of black American achievement mostly began with slavery and ended with the civil rights movement. I graduated from high school 25 years ago, but unfortunately this is still the status quo in most classrooms across urban America.

For the past few months, I’ve surveyed black high school students in my community. When I asked the students if they found their high school curriculum interesting and satisfactory, only 2 percent answered “yes.” I asked the students what could be done to make their experience better, and nearly all indicated that they felt no connection to the curriculum. Their lack of knowledge about the history and contributions of black people was alarming. They essentially had little to no knowledge about pioneers like Ernest Everett Just, Marcus Garvey or Shirley Chisholm.

How do we expect young people to strive for greatness when examples of trendsetters who look like them are not championed?

It is clear that the problems associated with public schools are multifactorial. However, I believe in a curriculum that embraces and emphasizes the accomplishments of black Americans. Imagine if black students spent time learning about Robert F. Smith, currently the wealthiest black American, while being introduced to engineering and technology. His wealth was acquired by knowledge, experience and, eventually, wealth invested over time.

Some might argue that parents could share their own stories of black achievement. But how are parents supposed to share stories they don’t know themselves? Many of the students I’ve taught or who are in Project Pneuma have suffered through traumatic childhoods that are simply unimaginable. Often, they have very disruptive lives at home, and their parents are struggling to secure basic necessities. School should be a safe haven where teachers and administrators have the opportunity to make lifelong lasting impressions. However, if teachers and the curriculum fail to highlight the contributions of black Americans while educating black children, then the system has a fatal flaw. How much longer must we wait for change?

Local district administrators and parents need to pressure state departments around the country and the federal government to include our stories in all curricula. If children are our future, then the curriculum and delivery of classroom content should inspire them to reach new heights.

Damien Myers (damien.myers@projectpneuma.org) is the chief operating officer of Project Pneuma and a BMe Public Voices Fellow with The Op Ed Project.

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