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Boston Public Schools studying black and Latino male students’ success rates

Martin Desmarais

Boston Public Schools takes reducing the achievement gap in education seriously and has been engaging in efforts to improve the performance of its black and Latino male students.

In June, BPS received a $250,000 grant from the Barr Foundation and made a commitment of $260,000 to collect data on black and Latino male students and start an advisory committee.

The ultimate goal is to make black and Latino male students more successful and ensure that a BPS education has a more positive impact for these students.

BPS is partnered with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University on the project. The Annenberg Institute is a national policy-research and reform-support organization that promotes quality education for all children, especially in urban communities.

The institute’s primary areas of focus are school transformation, college and career readiness and extended learning time.

Warren Simmons, executive director of the Annenberg Institute, is a crucial alley for BPS in examining the performance of black and Latino male students.

According to Simmons, the project will have two phases.

The first phase, which is already underway, is to collect all the existing data on the black and Latino population of BPS, categorize it and look for patterns that highlight areas of concern and success.

The data that is being examined is information that BPS already keeps, such as information regarding suspensions, expulsions, enrollment in advanced placement courses and attendance.

The second phase will take a look at specific BPS schools that are highly successful at serving black and Latino male students and see how these successful strategies can be used at other schools.

“This is a proactive study as opposed to a reactive study,” Simmons said. “I think what Boston Public Schools is trying to do here is get ahead of the curve. … Rather than wait for the community to press for this, Boston Public Schools has asked for this to be done.”

Simmons also says it is more effective to use data to highlight issues that need to be fixed to improve the student experience than for educators to make assumptions or rely on stereotypes.

Klare Shaw, special advisor to the BPS superintendent, said that by February 2014 the researchers and advisory committee should have some initial positions on schools that are leading the way in educating black and Latino male students and others that are struggling.

Between that time and the start of the next school year they will work on examining the data deeper with more research, then develop some case studies to highlight problems and success. She added that the hope is to kick off phase two by September 2014.

“At that point we would probably be engaging the community in some conversations,” Shaw said.

Carroll Blake, from the BPS Achievement Gap Office, said that the project will also take a look at the teachers in their dealings with black and Latino male students.

He said part of the effort includes taking a closer look at curriculum, both how the students react to it and how the teachers deliver the material. He, for one, is convinced that this kind of research will reveal that some systematic improvements will have to be made. “At some point we are going to have to make changes in policies and decisions,” he said.

The efforts have the full support and backing of BPS interim superintendent John McDonough, who praised the efforts to improve education.

“We are building a team of dedicated, culturally diverse educators, and this study will help us better understand how we can truly challenge all students,” said McDonough. “Being a top-performing urban district is not enough for us. We must raise the bar even higher for all children.”

Simmons said the ultimate goal is to eliminate the achievement gap among all students.

“That is a high bar to reach. … To reach it you have to be constantly vigilant and research your own best practices,” he said. “This is something that doesn’t go away. … You really have to stay in front of this issue by examining the data.”

Simmons points out that Boston is not unique in examining the achievement of black males. In fact, several such studies have been conducted in school systems in New Orleans and Washington, D.C.

The data in those cases showed that black male students were not getting what they needed to be successful. The good news is the school systems were able to improve performances.

Simmons and Blake both bring a personal identification with the project that they say drives them to make sure it is successful.

“I am an African American male, and I have experienced these things in my own education career, being disengaged at times and having teachers come to my rescue and having peers come to my rescue. … It would have been better if the whole system had been mobilized,” said Simmons.

“I am a product of the Boston Public Schools. … For me it is like paying it forward. I never want a young man to come to Boston Public Schools [and] to have to change his career because he did not have the right preparation,” Blake said. “I want every young man to become what he wants to become.”