Nationwide, the conversation on education is increasingly dominated by teacher accountability, charter schools and test scores. While these things are critical, we cannot forget about the numerous hazards that many African-American students face in their communities as they pursue an education. We must remember that school is much more than just what happens inside brick and mortar buildings. What happens outside is equally, if not more, important and deserving of attention. As we ramp up our discussion of what needs to happen inside schools, we cannot forget about a hazard Black youth often face: violence in their communities.
I recently sat in on a meeting with African youth in Harlem. These high school students are part of the Achieving Leadership’s Purpose (ALP) program and had just finished watching part of the documentary “Eyes on the Prize” which traces the Civil Rights Movement. They listened to the gut wrenching recollections of the Emmitt Till story, which many have never heard about. When they were asked to reflect, student after student suggested, “It was just something small that got him killed.”I was ready for them to follow up and suggest times had changed, but they did not follow that path. One student said, “You know the thing today is that we still die over the little stuff, just today it doesn’t even have to be [at the hands of]White people.” Quickly the conversation shifted to testimonies of violence.
Student after student recounted the violence they commonly experience: siblings shot out of mistaken identity, students being shot at for greeting their old friends who had dropped out of school, witnessing fights that escalated for little reason, etc. Their painful tales were sobering. If we are to reform education, we must also work at transforming the neighborhoods that surround schools.
Last fall, the internet went abuzz with images of Derrion Albert in the west side of Chicago getting beaten to death. Albert, an honor student – much like many of the students in the ALP program- was not immune to the hazards of high crime neighborhoods. While violent crimes have continued to trend down nationally, there is still considerable room for improvement. Many cities like Chicago and Philadelphia remain saddled with troubling escalations of violence. As sociologists Carla Shedd and Nikki Jones have demonstrated, it is not just boys who experience violence and unsafe neighborhoods, girls are equally in hazardous situations.
Whether as a participant, being a victim of it or having to deal with the psychological trauma of witnessing it, our children remain underserved in this area. A serious challenge is preparing youth to deal with violence whether it is in the neighborhood or inside their households.
The US Department of Justice estimates that 87 percent of inner-city high school youth have been exposed to violence in school within the last year. This type of persistent exposure to violence contributes to the stress students feel, the grades they earn, and whether they choose to continue with their education. Recently the Schott Foundation reported staggeringly low graduation rates for Black boys. If we are interested in curbing these drop-out rates, we have multiple challenges to tackle. Psychologists at University of Wisconsin–Madison and Brown University found that if school staff and other interventions can raise youth’s feeling of familial and peer support it could nullify the effects of exposure to violence. We cannot just stop at creating strong families; we must also explore innovative models that are targeted at reducing youth violence and increasing sense of self and community.
Thinking seriously about what Black youth have to deal with involves acknowledging that great schools should not just target basic academic skills but also keeping our children’s whole development in mind. Physical safety must be our concern if we are concerned with nurturing the mind. As the national debate rages around what constitutes a “good” school; it is important to remember that a “good” school in a “bad” neighborhood faces a challenge that most suburban and non-urban schools do not. The special challenge of educating Black youth in urban areas is one that we can all participate in, if we realize that it is going to take more than going to class to help our youth.
R. L’Heureux Lewis is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York – CUNY. His research concentrates on issues of educational inequality, the role of race in contemporary society, and mental health well-being. He blogs regularly at www.uptownnotes.com and you can follow him on twitter @dumilewis