Some of the most esteemed Baltimoreans attended or graduated from Baltimore City high schools: Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and U.S. Congressman Parren Mitchell (Douglass), Wall Street financier Reginald Lewis (Dunbar), and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates (Poly). These revered men remind us of a yesteryear when black males, in particular, had opportunities to thrive and succeed while attending city schools.
But that Baltimore of old is very different from the one many black males experience today. Instead, we hear story after story of young black men whose lives are cut short by violence. Young men like Najee Thomas, 14 (Coppin Academy); Michael Mayfield, 17 (Edmondson); and Raysharde Sinclair, 18 (Friendship Academy of Science & Technology) — three teenagers who were all killed within a 10-day period last month.
Friends and family of the victims have indicated that they demonstrated great promise in their lives. They were in school. They were cared for by loving parents or guardians and not committed early to a life of crime in the streets. They were on a road of promise with goals, not guns.
One of the most famous Marylanders once said, "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men." Frederick Douglass' famous observation calls upon all of us today to lift up our young men in this city. There is nothing easy about "building" strong children, but we do know that our children require much labor and love to flourish.
Without adequate education, our children are unlikely to follow the paths to achievement blazed by the likes of Justice Marshall and Congressman Mitchell. Instead, the life trajectory of our young black men today is aimed at the Baltimore City Detention Center, where nearly 60,000 people (nearly 10 percent of the city's population) are processed each year. As founders of a public charter school geared toward male students, we are seeking to fulfill Douglass' vision by tipping the scales of opportunity for a generation of young men of color in the city. At times, initiatives such as ours appear unnecessary. The abstract statistics we are given provide hope: increased high school graduation rates and lower violent crime rates among young black males. But more intimate knowledge of circumstances in our neighborhoods confirms otherwise. Urban black parents whisper their fears for their sons, and then quietly move out of Baltimore City to what they pray are safer neighborhoods.
When a child is killed, especially a young man of color, we show support for the friends and families stricken by these tragedies through public rallies. And we have earnest, and necessary, conversations about violence and safety. But these are not enough.
We believe education has the power to make a lasting difference. We should all be alarmed that, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam, only 7 percent of black boys in Baltimore City schools are reading at grade level in 8th grade. Even worse, in Maryland, 57 percent of black males are currently graduating from high school compared to 81 percent for white males. Hundreds of black boys drop out of Baltimore high schools each year. They enter the adult world unable to read and comprehend the daily newspaper or to find a job that supports the cost of food and shelter.
By design and by dint of enduring systemic inequities, two Baltimores are emerging: one safe and prosperous, and the other becoming a killing field where our children are not spared. Statistics indicate that a black male student living in Baltimore City faces a decreasing chance of success with each grade level. Our educational institutions must develop solutions tailored to the sequentially more difficult challenges these boys wrestle with every day on their journey to manhood.
Today's families dream, as past generations did, that our sons will achieve greatness. There is an undeniable crisis for boys and young men in Baltimore City. As the rallies continue and task forces form, we should also ask the long-range question: What conditions and expectations can we create to give parents hope for their sons' success?
Adverse circumstances for our black sons is nothing new. It was the deep yearning to succeed despite adversity that ensured Justice Marshall's place in history and Reginald Lewis' achievement as the first African American to build a billion-dollar company. The common denominator is education, one that sets up great expectations for our students and demands audacious dreams from them.
Building strong young men takes work, and faith in these boys' potential. To turn from the task of nurturing today's boys — whether from doubt, fear or indifference — is, as Douglass reminds us, to take up instead the far more daunting task of rebuilding tomorrow's broken men.
The writers are founders, along with hundreds of families, of Baltimore Collegiate School for Boys, a public charter school in Baltimore City. The may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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