Thursday, October 24, 2013

Private schools, African American males and American Promise

Last week I went to Trinity Episcopal School to see  "American Promise,"  the latest education film to spark a national buzz.  (The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture is showing it Nov. 9.)

The documentary takes on the challenges of African American males through the eyes of two boys who enroll as kindergartners in Manhattan's elite Dalton School. Filmmakers Michele Stephenson and Joe Brewster spent 13 years tracking the educational path of their son Idris and his friend Seun.

As a journalist and a parent,  I was fascinated by the chance to watch them morph from little boys cutting up in the back seat to young men heading into their separate futures. Viewers see them struggle with race-consciousness and parental pressure, learning disabilities and family tragedy, social acceptance and college admissions.

Unlike other recent education movies, such as "Waiting for Superman,"  a documentary about the Harlem Children's Zone,  or  "Won't Back Down,"  a dramatized story based on the push for parent trigger laws,  this one doesn't seem to be promoting any one solution or point of view.  One young man sticks with the mostly-white private school,  which his parents hope will be the ticket to Ivy League education and opportunity.  Another goes to a mostly-black public high school.  It wasn't clear to me which student was better off in the end.  The message can be elusive;  a New York Times movie review described the film as exasperating and intellectually murky.

But it can also be a starting point for discussion of real-life challenges that defy simple answers,  where race and class get tangled up in individual circumstances.  That's the hope at Trinity,  which filled the 500 seats set up in its gymnasium for the screening.

We've been hearing a lot about the challenges of African American males in public schools.  Trinity,  a religious school on the northeastern edge of uptown Charlotte,  also sees diversity as a crucial part of its mission.  Every year the school brings in speakers or programs designed to open minds and discussions,  not only among Trinity faculty and families but at other schools and in the broader community.

Jabari Spruill, head of Trinity's middle school, says The Dalton School deserves kudos for opening itself to such scrutiny.  "If this film was made at Trinity,  what would Trinity families say?"  he asked.  In upcoming sessions for faculty and parents,  he'll use the film to launch that kind of talk.

Spruill agreed that  "American Promise"  doesn't offer a simple blueprint for improving the educational success of young black men.  But he said it does raise important questions.  For instance:  What kind of numbers does it take to make diversity succeed? (Trinity is about 20 percent nonwhite).

 Idris and Seun appeared to be among a handful of nonwhite students when they started at Dalton.  In the film,  both talk about feeling like they're always in a racial spotlight at Dalton,  and the parents wonder how much their son's challenges are coming through a racial filter.  Spruill says Dalton has made changes:  This year's kindergarten class at Dalton was 50 percent black or Latino.

The discussion about diversity,  cultural competence and African American males has been most visible in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,  for obvious reasons.  It will be fascinating to see how a private school with a thirst to explore  "the way that race and class and education intersect in different ways"  contributes to the community's thinking.


Pamela Grundy said...

For folks interested in these issues, "Hoop Dreams" is another terrific documentary that explores the lives of two young men and their families.

Shamash said...

"What kind of numbers does it take to make diversity succeed?"

Well, I guess the first step would be to define exactly what you mean by "succeed", now wouldn't it?

I really don't know WHAT kind of miracle cures people are expecting out of "diversity".

Gosh, is 20% enough? What about 33%, or 50%.

What are they expecting, learning by osmosis?

Maybe it's like mixing oil and water, no matter what the "solution", they still go their separate ways.

Other than placating the kumbaya crowd, I'm not sure that what we typically call "diversity" has any particular benefits.

I know it gets a lot of airplay, but other than that, what are the REAL advantages?

And exactly what kind of "diversity" are they talking about?

It's usually about "skin color" or "money", but I'm not sure that is so important as other things such as problem-solving approaches or personality types.

So why no big push for "diversity" in thinking styles or personality types?

If racial and socioeconomic "diversity" REALLY mattered, then wouldn't everyone who wasn't "diverse" be at a severe disadvantage?

And yet, it seems that mostly the disadvantaged remain disadvantaged due to this lack of "diversity".

And is it enough to be surrounded by successful, hard-working examples of "diversity", or MUST there be some less capable (or "disadvantaged", or "at risk") examples in the mix as well?

The "advantaged" and "hard working" seem do quite well without as much need for "diversity".

South Korea comes immediately to mind as such an example. Finland as another.

And, yet, 50 years ago they were both poor as dirt.

And now aren't.

Without the help of "diversity" of the kind we apparently worship.

Why is that?

As for this movie, maybe I'll watch it since it ISN'T drumming a particular viewpoint or a typical canned "solution".

That sounds more like reality to me.

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Shamash said...

Oh, yeah, after looking into this filmmaking couple a bit, my skepticism is kicking in.

They are hardly a typical "middle-class" family, as they claim.

Seems that daddy is a Stanford/Harvard trained M.D./Ph.D in Psychiatry and mom is former "human rights" attorney with a law degree from Columbia University.

I think that having a Harvard trained doctor for a dad and a Columbia trained lawyer for a mom puts you squarely in the "upper class" of our society by most measures.

It seems that they have found a lucrative need, though, and are scrambling to fill it.

I saw a little presentation they did and read some more about the film being "the centerpiece of a transmedia engagement campaign that will use mobile web and interactive technology to help propel young men of color to success."

Sounds like they have a plan for themselves, if not for their son.

But, hey, maybe that's just me...

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you're afraid of a little competition for your perfect prodigy.

Anonymous said...

I know people often spin off into various education-related topics here, but I'm taking down the comments related to the Danvers student's attack on the teacher because there's an implication, intended or not, that this is an issue related to black males. I don't think that's valid or helpful, any more than it would be to label white males with some of the school crimes committed by said individuals.

Shamash said...

Afraid of competition?

Yeah, sure.

I'm weeping because I can't build a cottage industry around my child and overcoming the "achievement gap" like some folks can.

My children are just expected to do well, even if they're NOT in the "upper class" of society.

Maybe I should adopt...

Anonymous said...

Not sure what your article is really about? Are you pitching a film documentary for Project Lift? The left field random articles are pretty poor. So much more to be reported on in the education world locally your really ducking the issues. How about a upcoming election? Keith W. Hurley

Anonymous said...

Keith, if you missed them in print you can find articles about all the board races and bond referedums at Interactive maps, candidate questionnaires, all sorts of stuff -- I definitely haven't forgotten about the election. We're about to post an article about tonight's candidate forum.

Shamash said...

Heck, I think this is just as relevant as current elections.

It exposes some of the attempts to influence policy that are going on all the time that we may not all be aware of.

And which are likely to be factors in future elections, if not the current one.

It's exactly this kind of "storytelling" by "community organizers" that causes so much crap to be taken so seriously by our school systems.

Just count it in the long line of "stories" like Superman, Courageous Conversations, et. al, that will soon have CMS (and other) bureaucrats bleating like sheep to comply with what they will claim is a push from the "community".

It's nice to know where the push is really coming from and who the man behind the curtain is.

Anonymous said...

It's all comes down to parenting, or lack of parenting.

Anonymous said...

Except the "good" parents don't get as much support...

Anonymous said...

Drag down the whites and the gap will narrow.
The CMS BOE actions have in effect been in this direction for years.