Elgin Area School District U-46 officials gathered Saturday to explore local obstacles to academic success for black male students. And it started with a confession that U-46 is failing the more than 1,200 black males in its classrooms.
"We just want to say that this is our district's acknowledgment that your experiences have been different," said a teary April Wells, the district's gifted program coordinator. "We believe in your inherent value, and we are conveying that to you."
The rest of the "Brother 2 Brother" symposium quantified how different the educational experience is for the 6 percent of the U-46 school population who are black.
One of the most candid moments came in exploring the recent history of student discipline.
John Heiderscheidt, the district's director of safety and culture, shared information showing that black male students are disciplined at least twice as much as males of any other race in the district.
Those students also receive longer out-of-school suspensions than their white peers. District officials have reduced out-of-school suspensions over the past decade, thinking students are better off at school where teachers can influence better conduct. But even though out-of-school suspensions fell 83 percent from about 7,000 during the 2007-08 school year to about 1,200 in the most recent year, black males are still overrepresented.
"Are the interventions we're using to help make students more successful working? I don't think they are," Heiderscheidt said. "Our interventions, they are working for our white kids. For African-American students, they are disproportional. That's calling it what it is."
School resource officers no longer dictate student discipline in U-46. That change helped shunt what Wells described as a school-to-prison pipeline. Heiderscheidt called for a better approach to student misconduct.
"We have to go from what is wrong with the student to thinking about what is this student going through," he said. "That's a big shift for people."
Assistant Superintendent Ron Raglin said the No. 1 thing black male students are going through in U-46 is poverty. About 76 percent of black male students in the district receive free or reduced meals. Black males also represent more of the district's special education and homeless student population than any other group. At the same time, just 4 percent of black males are identified as gifted students or take AP courses.
"We need to be able to address this," Raglin said. "We have to make sure these students have clothes, make sure they have food. Those are issues that they should not have to deal with. We have to step forward and fill in those gaps if our students are going to have a chance."
Raglin provided several suggestions to address the racial disparities: The Brother 2 Brother symposium should become an annual event. The district should host a black male image award gala to recognize teachers and students who are succeeding. Faculty and staff need mandatory equity training. And every black man in the community should sign up to mentor three black males, one each at the elementary, middle and high school level.
School board member Traci O'Neal Ellis called for the recruitment of teaching staff that reflects the racial and cultural diversity of the student population. She challenged district personnel to recognize racism as a factor in the achievement gap for black males.
"I'm challenging us to call a thing a thing and acknowledge what we already know to be true," O'Neal Ellis said. "Young black males are suffering in schools across this country, including ours. And we are not doing all we can to address it. One of the critical factors we are missing is the impact of race and racism on intellectual achievement. There is a systemic problem affecting black males rather than a problem with black males."