Merlene Davis: Program to focus on helping young black males be more successful

After he graduated high school, Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old black man who was shot and killed by a white police officer nearly two weeks ago in Ferguson, Mo., spoke of how relieved he was to get his diploma.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Brown had spent much of his senior year in a credit recovery program in order to graduate on time in May.

Brown's friend, Hershel Johnson, told the newspaper that at graduation on May 22, Brown said "he wasn't going to end up like some of the people on the streets. He was going to get an education. He was going to make his life a whole lot better."

Brown's plans to attend a technical school didn't materialize.

Without knowing Brown's educational background, Roz Akins, founder of Black Males Working, an educational enrichment program for young black males, guessed there were probably gaps in Brown's schooling. It was sort of like betting on the favorite.

BMW is hosting a community gathering Aug. 23, featuring Ivory Toldson, a Howard University associate professor and senior research analyst for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation in Washington, D.C.

"Breaking Barriers: Plotting the Path to Success" starts at 10 a.m., at First Baptist Church, Bracktown, and marks the start of BMW's 10th anniversary.

"If ever there is a time to talk about barriers, it is now," Akins said. "I believe this is important in getting young men earlier into a positive environment, and helping us to understand what those barriers are that keep African-American males from being successful. We don't want what happened in Ferguson, Mo., to happen here."

While it seems Brown had turned around his academic path, many black males don't. Toldson will address that dynamic, she said.

"He is going to talk about plotting a pattern to success," Akins said. "Here is what we do."

Toldson, author of a series of publications that analyze success indicators for black male students, learned about the BMW program and asked to be a part of it in some way.

"I think we have over-studied failure," Toldson said during an interview on The Scholar's Chair TV program. "We have studied failure to the point we think black kids are at risk just by virtue of them being black."

Comparing black students to other racial groups is unfair, he said. The comparison makes it seem black students can't achieve unless they are like other races. But other races don't have the same problems as black students or live in the same environments. What black students navigate to get an education is not the same.

Toldson said we should be looking at strength-based factors such as family, social arena, schools and emotions.

"Impoverished parents have a much deeper burden, much heavier lifting, to ensure their children get the schooling that they need," Toldson said during the TV program. Some of the difficulties include fighting the suspension of their child for a minor offense, or challenging calls for their child to be placed in special education or put on behavioral drugs.

"We need to band together and help those parents," he said.

"Breaking Barriers 2," one of Toldson's research articles, focuses on the juvenile justice system and our schools. In the report, he said, "A lot of research has demonstrated that when schools take on a more correctional feel to them, they track males, particularly black males, into the juvenile justice system instead of the principal's office. It brings (young men) in contact with the justice system earlier than you might be if you were in a suburban school district."

The strength-based approach to research looks at what "will push someone forward rather than what would hold them back," he said.

Other barriers include low expectations for black students and the lack of relationship-building in our schools, Akins said.

"We've got to know how to create those kinds of relationships that hold them accountable," she said. "When they have a relationship with someone who truly believes in them, they will rise to the occasion."

In addition to Toldson's appearance, representatives from Ashland Oil will offer "speed mentoring" to any child who wants to talk about careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering or mathematics) fields.

BMW started in 2005 at First Baptist, Bracktown. More than 200 boys attend the BMW academy. The program has spawned the Carter G. Woodson Academy, an intense program for boys in grades 6-9 at Crawford Middle School.

The average ACT score for black males in Kentucky is 15.8. For BMW participants, ACT scores average 22.4, Akins said..

Akins said this is also the second year for the Pre-BMW program at Shiloh Baptist Church, which is for second and third graders, as well as the second year for the Junior BMW program at Consolidated Baptist Church, geared to fourth and fifth graders.