Here are the latest depressing reports on the plight of African Americans: Only 12 percent of our fourth-grade boys are proficient readers, compared with 38 percent of white fourth-grade boys. By eighth grade, reading proficiency falls to just 9 percent for black males, 33 percent for whites.
Clearly, this is a crisis situation, with black males almost twice as likely as white males to drop out of high school, and a dropout rate of about 50 percent in some big cities. Black males make up about 5 percent of college enrollment nationally but about 30 percent of the prison population. Based on this depressing achievement gap, the demand for prison beds could remain strong for the foreseeable future.
Or we could open our minds to a different, controversial approach, such as the route taken by Urban Prep Academy, an all-boys charter school in Chicago. While there are pros and cons of same-sex education, we should consider the success of Urban Prep and try to replicate it on a wide scale. Any school that places 107 out of 107 seniors into college is worthy of emulation. Considering the fact that those seniors hail from some of Chicago's most disadvantaged, impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhoods, Urban Preps should be popping up across the nation as we speak.
Of course, there isn't one single solution for the problems facing black boys. Better parenting and better teaching would help, whether or not schools are coed. And Urban Prep's focus on college preparation doesn't change the fact that the skilled trades are an attractive — and necessary — alternative for some students, who can go on to lead healthy and productive blue-collar lives. We need plumbers, electricians and HVAC specialists as much as we need doctors, lawyers and engineers. Nevertheless, schools such as Urban Prep offer an attractive alternative to coed public schools.
I don't need a scientific study to know that little things — like having the boys wear blazers and ties and refer to one another as "Mr." (and their last name) — can do wonders in increasing respect for self and others. Grouping black boys in a school where the standard is excellence, with consistent exposure to positive male role models from the community, is bound to pay off. Those boys will start to realize they have real options besides athlete, entertainer, minimum-wage worker or criminal.
There are no conclusive data on the overall and long-term impact of schools like Urban Prep. But the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette surveyed 33 experienced African-American educators on the potential of single-sex schools in 10 dimensions: "(1) changes in attitudes and behavior; (2) neutralizing effects of community distress; (3) access to role models; (4) access to committed instructors; (5) performance on tests and grades; (6) access to culturally relevant curricula; (7) student involvement in shaping the instructional environment; (8) reduction in negative behaviors and altered conceptions of masculinity; (9) enhanced sense of identity and positive peer influences; and (10) improved capabilities for positive relationships with females.
"There was significant agreement that all-male academies might produce all 10 benefits," the paper reported. "The highest levels of agreement were obtained for areas 2, 8 and 9."
If all-male schools do nothing else besides 2, 8 and 9, they're a worthwhile option for many black boys and their parents. Based on the latest depressing reports, we certainly don't have much to lose by trying.
It's time to put more black boys together, to keep them from falling apart.
Deron Snyder is a regular contributor to The Root. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.