Youth Justice


When Shawn Dove was in sixth grade, the students at his New York City school were asked to decide which academic track they wanted to follow for the next two years. He decided to choose “major gym,” just like the rest of his friends. But when he brought the form home to his single mother and said “Hey, Mom—can you sign this for me?,” his mother said, “No—you’re not going to major in gym! There’s no future in gym. You’re taking science and math.” Shawn spent the next two years mad at his mother every day as he could hear the noise and laughter coming from the gym while he went thirty yards down the hall for math and science classes. But then when Shawn finished eighth grade, he understood. He and the other young people who had majored in science and math had the chance to move on to good high schools like Bronx Science, but Shawn realized those who had taken mostly gym weren’t moving on to much of anything.

Today Shawn leads the Campaign for Black Male Achievement for the Open Society Foundations. He shared this story at an achievement gap symposium hosted by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) on June 14 that brought together some of the leading educators, researchers, and policy experts in Washington, D.C. to confront the crisis facing the 3.5 million Black boys from birth to age nine and to highlight programs that are making a difference. A Strong Start: Positioning Young Black Boys For Educational Success addressed the daunting achievement gap many incorrectly believe is too big to solve and shared examples of best practices and leadership that are doing so.

The need to increase and support parent involvement was a key theme throughout the conference. In a week when the nation was preparing to celebrate Father’s Day, scholars noted that the high percentages of Black boys growing up in poverty and in single-mother households has had a devastating effect on Black boys’ outcomes. But as Shawn pointed out in his story, although being a single mother to Black boys is full of challenges, his mother made the right choices that opened doors for him. All parents need to be encouraged and educated to make the same kinds of choices throughout their sons’—and daughters’—development.

Many lessons came out of the symposium’s sessions, but above all, speaker after speaker reinforced how critical it is to intervene early. Dr. Iheoma Iruka, a researcher in the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, warned us, “we can’t wait for the gap to show up”—because by the time we measure achievement gaps in school, many Black boys are already behind. She explained that “the social and family disparities exist at birth and continue throughout. When you start at that low level you stay at that low level and the disparity continues.”

Right now, too many people don’t even see our nation’s educational achievement gap as a problem that affects them. Many Americans think they lack any self interest in assuring a level playing field for other people’s children, especially poor and minority children. But Black, Hispanic, and other minority children will be the majority of the child population in 2019. As Tulane University professor Dr. Oscar Barbarin put it, Black boys often function like the proverbial canary in the coal mine, giving us our first indication of how well or how poorly our society’s systems are doing. When they are suffering, we should all be paying attention because this is the early warning for everyone—and if we fix our educational system for Black boys, we will fix it for all children.

ETS and CDF—working with many others—are taking steps to focus on this most vulnerable group in America. Our schools and communities are failing the 3.5 million Black boys under age nine in shocking ways. They face a toxic cocktail of poverty, illiteracy, racial disparities, violence, massive incarceration, and family breakdown. A Black boy born in 2001 has a one in three chance of going to prison in his lifetime. But ETS, CDF, and many of the leaders attending the symposium believe that by looking at the early years and providing a high quality continuum of care and high expectations for every child, we can impact and change the odds for young Black boys right now. Focusing on an evidence-based approach to education and early childhood development can change the trajectory for young Black boys and all underserved children.

CDF and ETS hope by identifying best practices, policies, and strategies that work it will be possible to rewrite the story for young Black boys and replace the cradle to prison pipeline with a pipeline to college, work, and a productive life. This symposium brought together researchers who have analyzed what works specifically for the 0-9 age group of Black boys with scholars and program leaders sharing research-based solutions and effective programs that show negative outcomes can be averted with local investment in local programs, community involvement, nutrition, and, at every stage, parental involvement. These kinds of proven results provide a guide for policy changes at the state and national level for we don’t have a moment or a child to waste. I hope we will follow this symposium with one on Black boys ages 9-13 and subsequent ones which get them out of high school and into and through college.

President Obama has called education the civil rights issue of our time. Now is the time for the next transforming freedom moment and movement—to set our children free from illiteracy, low expectations, and jobless, hopeless futures, preparing them to thrive and succeed in the lives God provided them. Children have only one childhood, and for them tomorrow is today. We need to act with urgency to narrow the achievement gap, stop the erosion of the hard-earned progress of the past 50 years, and move our nation towards true educational equality and excellence for all children. But this will not happen unless adults in all walks of our children’s lives step up and pick up our responsibilities to nurture and protect the next generation. As the symposium was documenting examples of what works to save children and money in the long haul, the very kinds of critical programs and supports we know can close achievement gaps are on the chopping block in statehouses around the country and in our nation’s capital. Providing all children a healthy start, quality early childhood experiences, first rate schools with first rate teachers, and stimulating high quality out of school time programs must be the first order of national business in this quick fix, quarterly profit driven culture. Our most dangerous deficit is not the budget deficit—it’s our values deficit.