Broward schools working to boost success of black male students

In the Broward school district’s quest to improve minority student achievement, Dillard High School’s graduation ceremony last week was more than just another annual event — it was a taste of what success feels like.

Family members and friends packed Fort Lauderdale’s War Memorial Auditorium to cheer on the more than 300 graduates — most of them African-American. Dillard Principal Casandra Robinson boasted that many graduates were leaving high school with job-focused industry training certifications, and the Class of 2013’s overall graduation rate of more than 92 percent was one of the highest in school history.

“We’re kicking butt and taking names,” Robinson told students.

In part by studying Dillard and other high-performing schools — such as Miramar High School, which graduates more than 90 percent of its black male students — Broward hopes to find answers to a longstanding problem that has perplexed South Florida and the nation: How to boost the success rates of young black boys?

Broward is confronting the issue armed with its Black Male Success Task Force, created last fall.

Across just about every Broward school system indicator, from third-grade FCAT scores to high school graduation rates, black male students lag significantly behind their classmates. Roughly 35 percent of black male students score “proficient” or better on the third-grade reading FCAT, 20 percentage points below the district average. By eighth grade, that performance gap only slightly narrows to 19 percent.

At the same time, black males lead the district in the most troubling of categories: suspensions, expulsions, and student arrests.

In 2010, Broward and Miami-Dade counties were put on the defensive when the Schott Foundation for Public Education issued a report that found the districts were among the nation’s worst when it came to graduating black male students. Among districts with a large black population, Broward was deemed the nation’s third-worst, and Miami-Dade the fifth-worst. The Schott Foundation’s methodology, however, did not account for students who transfer between schools, leading to criticism that it may have overstated the problem in a transient state such as Florida.

Regardless, both counties have responded by taking action. Broward’s plan includes its new Black Male Success Task Force, while Miami-Dade has implemented a variety of strategies — tutoring, mentoring, acting quickly to identify at-risk students — that administrators say have paid dividends. Miami-Dade district leaders say the county’s black male graduation rate is up 15 percent versus five years ago; in Broward, there have been even bigger gains, with black male graduation rates rising from 39 percent in 2007 to almost 61 percent last year.

That 61 percent figure includes both charter schools and last-chance alternative schools. If you count only more-traditional public schools, Broward’s black male graduation rate rises to about 72 percent — better, but still more than 10 percentage points below the district average at those same schools.

In the latest Schott Foundation analysis, Broward has the nation’s eighth-best black male graduation rate, and Miami-Dade the 15th-best, although the foundation cautions that this high ranking is driven by the fact that overall U.S. performance is bleak.

Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, who is the district’s first permanent black superintendent, said black males often enter kindergarten already behind their peers academically — making high-quality preschool instruction hugely important. When it comes to student discipline, the district is hoping aggressive teacher training will help erase a trend where boys of color are often punished more severely than their white counterparts for the same misbehavior.

Runcie said he’s confident all students, black males included, can succeed, but right now “it’s a multitude of factors that converge into a perfect storm of tragedy, in terms of wasted human potential.”

Runcie’s task force is built on the hope that the combination of teamwork and data analysis will yield powerful results. It has more than 100 members, including community organizations, church groups, and government agencies from the Broward State Attorney’s Office to local police departments.

There’s also a coalition of about 10 local university researchers who have pledged to help, hailing from schools such as Barry, Florida International and Nova Southeastern. They will spend three years analyzing Broward’s task force, and will provide feedback on what works and what doesn’t.

Key elements of the district’s plan include each high school (joined by the middle and elementary schools in its feeder pattern) creating its own customized “Turning the Curve” strategy. As part of that process, each high school “zone” identifies its total number of black male students, along with each student’s level of academic preparation. The district is also investing in teacher training that it hopes will make classrooms more engaging. Social services such as professional counseling and drug addiction treatment will be offered to families where instability at home is a root cause of student underachievement.

Mentoring, too, will be a big emphasis, with that role being filled by community members, teachers, or even students’ own peers.

“Many of these black males do not have father figures in their lives, which has a huge impact,” said Mickey Pope, executive director of Broward’s student support initiatives.

Even before Broward launched its task force, school-based mentoring had a fan in Dillard student Deondre Miller, who graduated last week. Back in 10th grade, on the first day of school, his grandfather, who had been his role model, died. The coaches and male teachers at Dillard quickly stepped in to fill that void, said Miller’s mother, Latosha Taylor.

“They motivated him to get a job. It was excellent,” she said. “I couldn’t be there, I had to work, I’m a single parent. So they came behind me like, ‘Don’t worry about it, Ms. Taylor, he’s a good kid, I got him.’ ”

Miller, 18, said he remembered school counselors plucking him out of class immediately after his grandfather’s passing. That counseling, coupled with the wrestling coach who called home when his grades slipped, and bought him shoes when the family couldn’t afford them, made the teen feel valued and special.

“I felt like an individual,” said Miller, who is planning a career as a computer engineer.

Runcie says the district’s focus on black male students will benefit society as a whole: Students who drop out are at risk of turning to criminal activity, and the cost of incarcerating someone far exceeds the cost of educating that person. Also, Runcie said, Broward needs to do a better job of tailoring the school experience to each student’s particular needs, meaning the lessons learned by the task force can be applied to all races and genders.

“We cannot use the factory model any longer in public education,” Runcie said. “That’s not going to help us be successful as a nation.”

Although it has only just begun, the task force has caught the eye of school district officials across the country, who have reached out to Broward for more information. Barry Associate Professor of Education Gerene Starratt, who is one of the researchers involved, said the initiative stands out because it’s being implemented throughout a large urban school district, and it targets students of all ages, including the early grades.

“The high schools complain that the kids they get from middle school aren’t ready,” Starratt said. “The middle schools complain ... if you’re not looking at it from the beginning, you’re discovering problems that are too late for you to solve.”