by Matt Coleman - Jacksonville, FL, USA

They’re underrepresented in high school graduation ceremonies and college classrooms.

Their numbers are disproportionately high in prisons.

The statistics seem stacked against young, black men, but a group of advocates and academics came together today to develop a community-focused road map to success for the at-risk demographic.

The Jacksonville Community Engagement Group sponsored the symposium, which featured lectures from national leaders who are trying to tackle the same issue in their own communities. Education is the outlet by which young black men can paint a brighter future, said Barbara Darby, president of Florida Community College at Jacksonville’s North Campus and co-chair of the symposium.

A 2008 report by The Schott Foundation for Public Education, a program that tracks the progress of black male students in public education, determined black male students graduated at drastically lower rates than their peers during the 2005-06 school year.

The county’s overall graduation rate that year was 61 percent.

That number stood at 38 percent for black men. That translates to a little more than a billion dollar loss to the Northeast Florida economy during their lifetimes, Darby said.

Intervention must come early and often at the scholastic level, she said. Students can’t be allowed to shuffle through the school system until they grow tired of the day-to-day reality of education.

Darby said the dearth of positive, black male role models in the school system makes it difficult for her target group to visualize a successful future. An everyday figure such as a teacher who ascended through the ranks of academia can help counter any negative outside influences.

She said the Florida Department of Education should install a recruiting process that identifies black male teachers and places them in classes with a majority of black male students. “We’ve studied this and seen students apply themselves at a higher rate when they have a role model to aspire to,” she said. “This will create a pipeline of successful young men who have a positive future in their sights.”

Symposium keynote speaker Jawanza Kunjufu, a Chicago-based author and educator, said discipline and expectations need to be enforced from the moment they wake up to the second their heads touch their pillows. But one positive influence isn’t enough. “There must be more parental involvement, the number of volunteers in schools needs to rise and teachers need to expect more from their students,” Kunjufu said.

The group plans to present the action steps developed during the symposium’s brainstorming sessions a few weeks after the January meeting during a televised forum on WJCT, Darby said. She said the most daunting challenge will be to shift the community’s perception.

It’s not a single group of people at risk. It’s not isolated to just Duval County, either.

It’s a national issue that touches us all, she said. “The earlier we intervene, the more difference we can make,” Darby said. “This isn’t a ‘black’ problem – it’s a problem that plagues the entire community.

We must come together and steer these young men toward a future we all deserve.”