“SOMEBODY NEEDS TO HELP THE BOYS”
How Can We Stand Up for Young Men?
The knock came on the door of my elementary school classroom while I was sitting at my desk. Another student, one from my younger brother’s class, brought in a note for my teacher. I knew what it said: “Could David please come speak to his brother? Philip is acting up again.”
I had a good reputation in elementary school and I was considered mature for my age. Philip’s teachers always seemed to think that if anyone could influence him, I could. And so I’d get up from my desk and follow the student monitor who had brought the note, out of the classroom and down the hall. The walk felt as if it took a long time. When my brother’s teacher saw me, in front of the whole class she would say something like: “Your brother is not listening. He’s not being respectful. I’ve spoken to him time and again! Soon I’m going to have to call your parents, but I thought I’d ask you first, David. Maybe he’ll listen to you.” The whole speech was delivered in a tone that I knew drove Phil crazy. His classmates all stared.
My brother would get up from his seat, push in his chair, and the teacher would lead us out into the hallway, where she’d say more or less the same thing again. I would answer, “Yes, ma’am,” and act as respectfully as I could. Phil wouldn’t say a word.
Alone in the hallway, we’d both start talking really fast. I’d say something like, “What’s the matter with you? Don’t you know Daddy’s going to come to school and get you? Don’t you know he’s going to whup your butt?”
He’d say something along the lines of “I didn’t do it! It was so-and-so and he did this and I didn’t do that, but she wouldn’t listen. She’s always blaming me! All I did was try to explain!”
We both talked at once, rapid fire, until Phil was called back inside. And so it went. Four times a year, we would get our report cards and bring them home. Mine would be full of 90s and 95s; his had several 55s and 60s. And this was head-to-head competition: my brother and I were only eleven months apart—I was born in January, and he was born in December—and we were in the same grade.
Our father was an involved parent, interested in what we had to say, and as an enthusiastic player in our recreational games, he was always ready to join us for football and such. But he was also a strict, old-school disciplinarian, most of all when it came to our grades. He himself had dropped out of high school and worked years at hard, low-paying, physical jobs, including stints as a shipping clerk and in a men’s clothing warehouse. When they first married, my parents, like many young couples, couldn’t afford their own apartment; they had to live with my grandfather. My dad came to see that dropping out of school had been an enormous mistake. In time, he earned a GED (a high-school equivalency degree) and started taking civil service exams, winning jobs in the post office, working as a conductor for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and finally becoming a police officer. That was considered a top-level civil service job, but he soon found that even in his success, he was limited in how far he could climb, how many promotions he could get. To overcome these limits, he studied part-time for many years, earning an undergraduate degree and taking some graduate courses.
Phil says that when he showed Dad his grades, there was no talking permitted. Phil might try to explain: “Dad, it’s a lot of pressure, always going up against an honor-roll student like Dave,” but our dad wouldn’t hear it. Punishment was his response.
Why wasn’t my brother living up to his potential? I’ve had decades to think it over, as a brother, a father, a teacher, and a school principal. In part, I see now that he was the classic middle child, always in the first child’s shadow. It was worse because we were so close in age. He would have been better off starting school the following September, but as it was, I was always among the oldest kids in my class, and he was always the youngest in his. I had that extra year of maturity going for me, and particularly for boys, maturity can take a while to kick in. Developmentally, he was a year behind in both academics and social maturity; we wondered when he would ever realize his potential. I had many chances to experience early success, while he rarely experienced even the small victories and moments of recognition that help motivate all of us to achieve greater things. He must have felt, from early on, Why am I even trying to be an A student or a well-behaved kid? I’m never going to catch up to my older brother. And so he tried to stand out as a smart-aleck.
Phil was not a terror, not out of control, not the kind of kid to get into violence, but he had a lot of energy, even more than the average boy. Part of that energy came from frustration. Energetic, often singled out by his teachers, frustrated—he could be a handful. The teachers tended to lose patience. As each in turn got to know him as an underachieving student and a provocative presence in her classroom, that became his identity. They looked for more of it. He heard an awful lot of “Stop it, Philip!”
As an adult, I found out from my parents that the teachers and the administration of our school had recommended that Philip be put on medication because, they said, he was “too hyper.” They made the same recommendation for him that is made for lots of other active boys, black and brown boys most of all. Young men of color are three times more likely to be categorized as mentally retarded or learning disabled—black students, for example, represent 17 percent of students overall but 41 percent of those in “special ed” classes; and in those classes there are more than twice as many black males as black females.
This doesn’t necessarily stem from racism or a bias against boys. The majority of teachers in this country are white and female, and their personal experiences give them little in common with boys like Philip. When they were girls, they probably liked school. Teachers approved of their behavior. They did well. For all those reasons, they may have been inspired to become teachers themselves, but the very strengths that qualified them to be teachers meant that they probably lacked the personal context for understanding a boy like Philip—either why he was so unhappy in the classroom or how his feelings could provoke him to behave in disruptive ways. The result, as Peg Tyre, author of The Trouble with Boys, described it, is that as early as preschool, “many young men get into a pattern of negative feedback . . . based on pretty normal behavior.”
Anyone could see that Phil was actually very verbal, very quick-witted. In fact, his intelligence was part of what made him so hard for teachers—or anyone—to handle. When a teacher would give him a directive, he might tell her, “You’re not my mother and you’re not my father. You have no right to tell me what to do!” Just the thing to get under a teacher’s skin—and to distract her from seeing the challenges he faced and the help he would require to reach his potential.
Philip was not just angry and mouthy in school, he was also bored. In my experience, smart girls who get bored often have the social skills to play along, but Philip, like a lot of boys, had trouble seeing the purpose in the distant end results of education. Many boys will ask themselves, Why are we doing this? What’s the point? And when they don’t find an answer, something practical they can see in front of them, instead of keeping their confusion and frustration to themselves, they act out. They are no less unhappy than the bored girls, but they are far more likely to get punished for it.
Had my brother been born to a different kind of mom and dad, he could have easily become a statistic. They might have given him medication to take away his energy, and then, once they’d slowed him down, the school could have put him in the slow class. That would certainly have made it easier for his teachers to teach, and it has happened to countless young men who never achieve the level of success that they should have. But my parents told the school administration, “Sorry, no. He’s got a little extra energy but you’re going to have to figure out how to deal with that.”
Phil’s grades were mixed, near failing sometimes, through middle school. In high school, he got them up into what could be called the average range, the sort of grades that make it hard to get into a good college. He was not a failure, but he was a chronically mediocre performer.
What could he do? Report cards came every quarter, at which point my father would be waiting at home to judge his grades. Philip had a close friend named Stephen who also struggled academically. Stephen was good at drawing, and he used to take his report card, which in those days was a paper card that the teacher filled out in pen, and touch it up a little before showing it to his mother. When it came to report-card forgery, some numbers were easier to work with than others. If Stephen received a 55, he could turn it into a convincing 85. If he got a 70, he could make it look like a 90. I don’t think my brother forged his grades, but even today he talks about school as if there was no realistic solution, only the fantasy that he could fool all the adults. “If I had just found a way to con that school issue,” he’s told me, “life would have been fantastic.”
I’ve asked him, “Couldn’t you have found a way to get better grades?”
“That wasn’t going to happen,” he said.
For me, school couldn’t have been much better. I was successful, well respected, and well liked. After I left elementary school, I kept in touch with my favorite teachers and my principal—and in fact, that school had only two principals in forty-five years, a remarkable measure of stability at a school that was in many ways excellent.
But to Philip and Stephen, it seemed hopeless, a rigged game. Their teachers couldn’t help them, their parents couldn’t help them, and the result over and over again was public humiliation and pain. Sometimes, my brother told me, he thought that the teachers and our father must enjoy having someone to punish.
And so, for years, the knock would come on my classroom door: another teacher asking me to “please do something about Philip.” Even our youngest brother, Terry, who shared a bedroom with him, will tell you that when we were growing up, he wasn’t sure how Phil would turn out.
I didn’t like getting called to Phil’s classroom. I was uncomfortable with that spotlight on me, on us both, as we tried and failed, over and over, to straighten him out. Nobody wants that kind of attention. I remember wondering, Why are you making me do this? Why do you even put me in this position?
I especially hated the way Phil, frustrated and embarrassed, would run his mouth. He would yell, “You’re a bastard, Dave! Mom and Dad had you before they got married. So you’re a bastard!” He would get under my skin until I just wanted to kick his butt.
One afternoon in the school yard he started in on that bastard stuff in front of everyone, and the next thing you know, I was beating him up. I punched him a couple of times and then held him down over a flight of concrete stairs. I could hear the excitement of the other kids watching—Yeah, yeah! Beat him up! It’s a fight!
As I held Phil pinned with his head hanging over the first stair, I had him right where I wanted him. And then I thought, This is my brother. I’m not supposed to be fighting my brother. Sure, we would always have our little fights at home, but now I was fighting with him in public while other people, some of them strangers, yelled for me to do him harm. It was, maybe, the worst feeling I ever had in my life.
A SECOND CHANCE
As seniors, we both applied to college. I got into every school but one. Philip received rejection after rejection. Finally, on the way home from our school’s senior trip, our dad told us, “Philip got accepted!”
“Yeah, Phil!” I said. “Wait, how do you know, Dad?”
“Some mail came in over the weekend, and I took the liberty of opening it!” My dad was super excited. I was excited for Phil, too. But Phil seemed only distantly pleased, as if this good fortune had happened to someone else.
Phil attended that school, Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania, which lays claim to being the oldest historically black college in the country. It was the school Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall attended, and also President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. Off in Pennsylvania, away from us, Phil transformed. He made the dean’s list, became president of his fraternity, and established himself as a leader, a star on campus. He met his wife, Denise, and married her. He graduated a different man.
We both finished college and came home looking for our first jobs. I became a safety officer in a school. Philip drove a bus for the MTA, feeling very proud to have a job with benefits, before he took the test for the New York City Police Department and became a beat cop like my dad. I remember our grandma Pearl was so upset about the dangers of being out on the street. “You didn’t go to college to walk around and be a cop!” she told him.
But my father encouraged Philip to see the police department as a career with long-term opportunities. In his own career, my dad always felt he lacked two things: a college degree and a mentor. But Philip had the degree and he had my dad, who was still “on the job,” as they say in the police force, a lieutenant two ranks above Phil. My dad would tell him: white kids come on the job, and their dads or their relatives who came up ahead of them make sure they focus on studying so they can pass exams and win promotions, which mean more authority, more money, more influence, and the chance to do more for their families. He told Phil that too many young black officers don’t have anyone higher up to mentor them, so they are just happy to carry a gun and wear a uniform, and to feel like a big shot in the neighborhood. They have no vision of their future.
Philip started taking the exams to qualify for promotion in the police department. He became a sergeant, and several years later a lieutenant. Now father and son held the same rank. Philip took the next test and was promoted to captain. That’s when Dad retired—he said that when you have to salute your own son, it’s time to go.
Soon, people who hadn’t seen my brother in years started saying to me, “Philip? You’ve got to be kidding me! Philip was such a knucklehead! He’s a captain now? He’s an inspector?”
Philip had been a kid no teacher expected to excel at this level. But here he was the commanding officer of a police precinct. In New York City, there are a small number of what are called one-star chiefs, and even smaller numbers of two- and three-star chiefs. Above them all, there is one four-star chief, known as the “chief of department,” who runs the day-to-day operations of the entire New York City Police Department and reports to the police commissioner, who is a civilian, a political appointee. In 2013, Chief Philip Banks became chief of department. This kid who seemed like he might miss his chance to go to college was now protecting the entire city of New York, and seeing his name on the short list as a candidate for police commissioner.
WHEN WILL THE LIGHT GO ON?
Watching Philip struggle for all of those years, then succeed when hardly anyone expected him to amount to much, taught me something I have carried with me ever since: never give up on a child. I was the sort of young man whose light went on very early; Philip was the sort whose light came on later. But in time, both shone brightly.
That experience of growing up with Philip has informed all my work in education, as a teacher, an administrator, and as the head of a foundation dedicated to improving education nationwide. It showed me that all of us have a responsibility to tend those flames, but that we must do so while never knowing when the fire is going to catch and that light is going to shine.
Are some of these boys going to tax us along the way? Sure. But later on, those very kids will be the ones doing remarkable things. Their teachers and their neighbors and others who knew them when may say, “Can you believe it?! Would you ever have believed it?!” But as someone who has run a school where young men do succeed, I say, yes, I believed it, even when they were at their most challenging. My work with those kids has confirmed that every child is a gift. Our job is to accept the responsibilities of that gift, to nurture those boys, to instill discipline, to love them, and to give them the tools to be successful. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing.
How will it play out? How can we know when the light will come on? We can’t. We’re never sure how it will go for this or that young man. We can’t tell in the fourth grade or the fifth grade. We can’t tell in the ninth grade or the tenth grade. What I do know is that among any group of young men, and especially among those in the most challenging environments, there are only a small number of Davids, who show their promise early on, and many, many more Philips, who make us wait. But each one offers us the chance to be part of a miracle, the miracle of a young man fulfilling his promise and his potential because he received the support and guidance that he needed.
WHO WILL STAND UP FOR YOUNG MEN?
This faith in the potential of young men, even those like Phil who struggled at first to soar, was what called me to work in education. That had never been my career goal. Back when Philip began building his career in the police department, I decided, after teaching for six years, to go to law school. After I graduated, I took a prestigious position in the New York Department of Law. I’d “made it,” and now I had a family to support. But the call of education was ever present. So I kept my law job but I took night classes at three different graduate schools, earning my educational administration and supervision certificate in a single semester. I became an assistant principal, and in time the founding principal of the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice, a new kind of partnership between the criminal justice community and an inner-city high school.
Bronx Law was part of a new generation of small, academically rigorous schools offering personalized instruction so our students wouldn’t slip through cracks. As we grew from a first class of sixty-four boys and girls to a total student population of between four and five hundred, mostly from the South Bronx, I worked hard to establish my reputation as principal. I built a team of excellent teachers and staff, and nurtured a student culture in which the students helped one another to thrive. In time, I got the school running the way I wanted it to, and the city of New York provided us with our own building. It all came to feel very comfortable. I enjoyed it so much, I would have been happy to stay there as principal for many years.
What I hadn’t expected at Bronx Law was that the applicants for that kind of academically rigorous school would be, overwhelmingly, girls. We looked up one day and realized that two out of every three of our students were female. Girls ran for most of the leadership positions, while the boys tended to sit back and let the girls be in charge. I was happy for the successes of the young women, but I was increasingly concerned for the young men, because what we were seeing at my school was part of an ominous national trend.
THE FEMINIZATION OF SCHOOL
Across this country young male students are struggling—and their parents and teachers often feel frustrated and helpless. In elementary and high school, American boys do less well on tests compared with girls, and the gap only grows as they get older. Boys have 70 to 80 percent of the behavioral problems. Boys are twice as likely to be left back and five times more likely to be expelled. The statistically average American college now has a female-to-male gender ratio of 60 to 40, and that gap too is growing. It’s as if, in the American classroom, the girls have become the Davids, showing their promise early and following through to success, while the boys have become the Philips, seemingly destined not to live up to their potential.
The group of young men who experienced these trends first, and have been hit hardest, are young men of color. While the ratio of females to males attending American colleges has reached 60 to 40, at the traditionally black colleges it is now 70 to 30, and the gap continues to grow. Only 55 percent of black and Latino students graduate high school, and in most big cities, the rate for young men of color is well under 50 percent. In other words, for urban black and Latino men, failure has become the norm. And what happens to those who don’t finish high school? Nationwide, almost two thirds of African-American males who don’t graduate are unemployed—and more than half of those end up in prison.
Mass incarceration in this country has terrible costs both for those incarcerated and for the country as a whole. According to “Collateral Costs,” a report by Bruce Western and Becky Pettit for the Pew Charitable Trusts, taxpayers are spending more than $50 billion a year on prisons, or $1 in every $15 from state general funds. Meanwhile, “incarceration eliminates more than half the earnings a white man would otherwise have made through age 48, and 41 and 44 percent of the earnings for Hispanic and black men, respectively.” These men don’t simply lose income during prison terms. They suffer a massive lifetime decline in income for themselves and their families. How do so many young men of color come to meet this fate? As I reported to New York City’s former mayor Michael Bloomberg while serving as cochair of his Young Men’s Initiative, a $127 million effort to illuminate the barriers faced citywide by young men of color, the gap is already visible in kindergarten. Falling behind at the start of the race can begin a dangerous cycle in which early setbacks provoke teachers and other authority figures to pull these students out of the mainstream, interrupting their efforts to succeed the way other young people do. Not only are they far more likely to be placed in “special ed,” but black male students are more than twice as likely to receive a principal’s suspension of one to five days out of school, and four times as likely to receive the more severe superintendent’s suspension, which keeps them out of school for up to a year.
In all these ways, both black and Latino males find their journeys as students interrupted. From regular classes, they are moved to special education classes. Suspensions take them out of school and deplete their ability to succeed when they return. As these young men find themselves out of the game, and discover slowly and painfully how hard it will be to get back in, they rarely have words for what they’ve lost. They express themselves through frustration, by shutting down, or through violence. The resulting involvement with the juvenile corrections system may keep them out of school again, and for even longer stretches of time. If they are incarcerated as adults, that’s just another in a series of diversions from the mainstream.
Often the adults whose work it is to help young people overcome obstacles only make matters worse. Parents who once struggled in school themselves may have lost faith that education can make a difference. Some oppose their children’s education out of resentment, or out of fear that it will steal their children away. Teachers can be just as negative. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been invited by a principal to speak at a struggling school, only to have the principal confide in me, My teachers don’t even believe in these kids. Far too often, not just parents and teachers but school administrators, social workers, juvenile corrections officers, and other adults on whom these young men rely actually expect them to fail, or at least to remain mediocre. Out of a group of struggling males, these adults may select a few “good ones” whom they like personally and try to assist, but far too often the overall expectation is that inner-city males especially are just too hard to reach. And at worst, some believe that young men of color are “naturally” thugs, miscreants, and deviants—hopeless cases.
THE BOY CRISIS
But while this experience hits brown and black boys earliest and hardest, the underlying causes are increasingly shared by American boys of many backgrounds. Nationwide, the percentage of children growing up without a father in the house has tripled from 11 percent in 1960 to 33 percent today. Among African-American families, in 1920 that number was only 10 percent, comparable to that of other groups. In 1960, it was 20 percent, still significantly lower than the current figure for all American families. Today, it is 68 percent. Again, the trend started earlier for African-Americans, and hit harder, but that is the direction in which the entire country has been moving.
The discussion of young men in this country has recently reached a fever pitch, with books such as Kay Hymowitz’s Manning Up questioning whether boys are even capable anymore of maturing into workers, husbands, and fathers worth having. Some journalists, like Hannah Rosin, have gone so far as to ask if we have reached The End of Men.
Years before that alarm was being sounded for men in general, I was aware that a large number of young men of color, including those in the South Bronx, where my school, Bronx Law, was located, were in serious trouble. Even as I savored the success of our girls, I felt a strong desire to help those boys.
For that reason, I joined the Legacy committee of the One Hundred Black Men, Inc., a civic organization of African-American professionals in New York City to which my father and I both belonged. Our goal was to found a public school that could do, for some of the young men who needed it most, what my brother needed as a child. It would be a chance to support the ones most easily misunderstood, the ones least likely to get their needs met, and to help them realize their potential in a typical school setting. It was through the efforts of the One Hundred Black Men that the first Eagle Academy for Young Men was founded, and I became its first principal.
Our inspiration came in part from a study that showed that 75 percent of the prison inmates for the entire state of New York were taken from the seven neighborhoods in New York City, including the South Bronx. To me that was an astounding statistic—even if 75 percent of inmates came from seven neighborhoods statewide I’d have been amazed, but the neighborhoods giving up so many of their young men to fill the state’s prisons were all right here in the city where I’d grown up. In neighborhoods like those, young men often seem to be giving up on themselves. They learn to expect a life on the sidelines or worse.
Because it starts to feel inevitable, these young men learn not to talk about what is happening to them. The ones who do talk about it are their mothers. I have met mothers with stories like these at every Eagle Academy open house. They tell me, “My son was so sweet just a couple of years ago, so huggable. I could take him in my arms. And now he’s growing and he’s changing. I’m losing him to the pull of the streets. I’m losing him . . .”
What could we do for young men who might be going wrong? I’d read and heard so many eminent experts whose message boiled down to this: We can only wait. Wait until some far-off day when poverty is ended. Wait until the cycle of violence is somehow broken or the collapse of the family magically reversed. Other experts will tell you that we have to wait until we change the anti-intellectual culture of the inner city, the worship of thugs as heroes. Still others claim we have to wait until we can end the distractions that steal our children’s time and attention, from drugs and alcohol to endless electronic devices. Or perhaps we have to wait until we solve masculinity itself, the difficulty of young men’s impulsive, unmanageable energy. The list of problems—reasons to wait—is long indeed.
The One Hundred Black Men wanted to found a school that would prove those expectations wrong. We chose to concentrate our attention on the most underperforming group of young men—inner-city boys of color—so we decided to found Eagle Academy as a single-sex school in a “prison pipeline” neighborhood. We refused to cherry-pick the best available students, and we pledged to open our doors to all comers and let the New York City Department of Education decide at random who received a place in our school. Ultimately, 25 percent were classified as “special ed” for academic or social and emotional issues. Our mission was to show that, given the supports they need, young men can achieve excellence in both scholarship and character. They can graduate college-ready in overwhelming numbers. They can build productive lives. And so we had a double goal: to help young men in one of the most challenging neighborhoods, and to show, by helping them, that we could help any young man.
With the guidance of one of the first educational reform organizations in New York City, New Visions, which was funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and with the support of then senator Hillary Clinton, One Hundred Black Men prepared for our public presentations to make the case that the city should let us establish a school. Board member Buddy Johnson, a nationally acclaimed former school principal and school superintendant, remembers, “We held many meetings with parents and others in the community, many focus groups and discussion sessions. It’s hard to recall how many meetings we held, all that time and effort to shape a school that would be high performing, with the community support to make it viable.” There were no shortcuts.
During the time we spent making presentations to the city, out of all the different people who sat in judgment of the ideas we were offering I can hardly remember one man of color. I barely remember anyone on the other side of the table who had grown up in any of the communities where young men need our help most. That fact seemed partly to explain how the situation for those young men had become so bad, and it confirmed our commitment to making change by drawing on the strengths of those communities.
Each of us involved in creating Eagle found the areas where we could best contribute. Some got involved in shaping public policy on education by sharing our growing expertise and writing op-eds for newspapers. Some focused on the nuts and bolts of how a school runs: hiring the school leaders and the teachers, getting a space, formalizing a curriculum, establishing a budget. We had to keep pushing up our sleeves and putting in real time.
Before we ever tried to found Eagle Academy, others had made efforts to start all-boys public schools in New York. Those efforts failed. There was political resistance to the idea of doing something just for boys, who were assumed to be better off than girls. There were questions about whether it was even constitutional: Would a lawsuit shut down an all-boys school just as it was getting going?
It was clear we could not succeed without some powerful partners. And so, even as we learned to do as much as we could on our own, we looked for others who could help us. In New York City, control of public education had recently shifted from the Board of Education to the mayor. Mayor Bloomberg made it clear he wanted to make education a priority, and this became the basis for partnership: we both needed allies. The One Hundred Black Men offered the mayor our dedication to developing expertise on the education of young men of color. Our board president, Paul Williams, became part of the mayor’s “kitchen cabinet” on education. That gave the mayor a chance to become more familiar with the ideas of our group.
In late 2003, the Legacy committee of the One Hundred decided to reach out to then senator Hillary Clinton. As soon as we made our presentation to her, it was clear she had a deep understanding of the value of what we were doing—she grasped the legal concerns about an all-boys school, but she was deeply impressed by the idea that the One Hundred Black Men were serious professionals standing up for the younger men in their home community. She pledged to be supportive in both big ways and small, and she talked about Eagle not just in New York and not just to audiences of color but all over the country, becoming our champion nationwide.
With Senator Clinton’s support, we then met with Mayor Bloomberg. Now the mayor not only had some familiarity with the work of the One Hundred, he had the senator’s personal recommendation that he take this project seriously. He met with us, discussed the issues, and in the end he said, essentially: “Let’s go for it. We may get sued, but if so, we’ll have the corporate counsel’s office at the New York City Department of Law to defend it. This is worth fighting for.”
I’ve mentioned some of Eagle’s most prominent partners to suggest what is possible for a small, committed group with a strong, compelling mission, no matter where they begin. I would be remiss, though, if I didn’t make clear that our most essential partners have always been the parents and other members of our school communities—some of whom partnered with us before Eagle Academy even existed. I remember when we were trying to launch the first school where I was principal, the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice. A new schools chancellor had been appointed, and it looked as if our plans for the new school might be canceled. We rallied our community to come to a meeting at the chancellor’s office, and the turnout was huge. We took up every seat except those reserved for the politicians. Tracy Lewis, a parent supporter, gave a memorable speech in which she said, “I am here today representing the future parents who don’t have children in school yet.” She described the difference that Eagle’s success could make for the Bronx overall. At the end of the meeting, the school board president said, “In all my years, I have never seen a display like this. Truly impressive.” All the members of the board shook our hands. The plans for Eagle were put back on the table, and after the school was finally established, Tracy Lewis ultimately became president of the Eagle Parent-Teacher Association.
THE EAGLE RECORD
After much effort, the One Hundred Black Men founded Eagle Academy in 2004. True to our original vision, it was a public school for boys, with no requirements for admission other than each family’s expressed interest in having their young man attend. We have more than doubled the graduation rate for our population group. More than 90 percent of our graduates go on to college, and our success rates are improving over time. We have built on our success by opening new Eagle schools in Newark in 2012, Harlem in 2013, and Staten Island in 2014. Many of our graduates return to their schools and neighborhoods, to inspire and assist those coming up behind them.
BEYOND ISLANDS OF SUCCESS
Let me be clear: if the only story I had to tell was how one or even a few schools overcame the odds, I wouldn’t have written a book. If I didn’t believe that our experience could improve the lives of young men in varied communities—rural, urban, even abroad, where the most recent requests to partner with Eagle have come from—I wouldn’t have written a book. I’m not all that interested in little islands of success. Stories of how individual teachers inspire their students and even stories of teachers who have inspired me are reflected in these pages, and I’m always impressed with excellent educators and deeply grateful for their work, but I’ve learned that a few exceptional educators are not enough. The sad truth, when you hear an amazing story about that one inspiring teacher in a failing school, is that most students were never in her class. A lone success—one exceptional principal, one inner-city kid who makes it big, or one family that beats the odds—may do great things, but fundamentally, nothing changes. The close-up on that successful face inspires us, but the bigger picture remains: the tiny number who find a way out and the vast majority who are essentially abandoned.
Many of us felt the painful urgency of this situation when we watched the documentary Waiting for Superman, which evoked the desperation of families hoping to get their children into a few elementary schools that offered the promise of a better future. That compelling film showed what was at stake and framed the question, What can we do? But the film only addressed elementary school students, not the long journey from elementary school through college and adult achievement. It didn’t provide the answer.
Our answer begins with a change of mind-set. I remember attending the New York premiere of the movie Malcolm X, starring Denzel Washington. I was always highly inspired by the way Malcolm transformed himself from a street hustler who was only out for himself into a leader who saw the humanity in everyone. Malcolm once said, “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today,” and that became one of the guiding principles for Eagle Academy.
When the movie ended and I came out of the theater, there were journalists conducting interviews. A South African reporter asked me, “Who do you think will be the next Malcolm X?” People ask this sort of question all the time. Who will be the next Martin Luther King, Jr.? Who will be the next Nelson Mandela or Barack Obama? Who’s the next solitary hero in history’s line? To me, that misses the whole point.
So when she asked me, I told her, “I am. I’m the next Malcolm X.”
She looked surprised.
Then I pointed to my brother Phil, who was beside me. I said, “He’s the next Malcolm X.” I wanted the reporter to understand that there are many of us who possess the same drive, determination, and love for our communities that Malcolm had, and that the time has come to stop looking for the next one-in-a-million miracle. We need to think much bigger, and empower all the Malcolms among us.
To me, what matters most in my story is not founding Eagle Academy in the Bronx. That was just a step. After we made that school a success, we founded another Eagle school in Brooklyn, where Rashad Meade was the principal. A new group of different yet dedicated people took what we had learned and built on it and succeeded there. And then we founded a third Eagle school in Queens with yet another principal, Kenyatte Reid, and another committed staff, and they made it work again. In the Bronx, average attendance has been 90 percent; in the Brooklyn and Queens schools it’s about 95 percent. We’re getting better at this as we go along.
Again, I didn’t write this book to trumpet the success of a few schools. I did so because of the knowledge we have gleaned as we have learned how to raise our students to soar—knowledge I can now share with all those who raise, educate, support, employ, and believe in young men, of any background, anywhere.
At Eagle, we certainly don’t know everything. Our method is a constant process of new discovery of what our young men need and experimentation to find what will better help them to flourish. But fundamentally, as I will describe in this book, we have cracked the code. The Eagle method is not specific to race or socioeconomic status. It is a philosophy and a set of practical strategies that can be adapted to embrace and support young men of any background to achieve their promise and potential. It shows what we can all accomplish—in our homes and in our schools, in our community organizations and our businesses, in our towns and cities small and large—as we help shape the young people who will determine our nation’s future.
That’s no exaggeration. Where our young men are not succeeding, school ratings fall and take property values with them. Crime increases. Budgets strain to meet the cost of incarcerating our young people. Businesses struggle to find skilled workers, and retailers find fewer buyers for their goods. As education writers Richard Whitmire and Professor William Brozo have argued, “The marathon to produce the most educated work force—and therefore the most prosperous nation—really comes down to this: whichever nation solves the ‘boy troubles’ wins the race.” Like it or not, the success of young men impacts us all.
If young men in this country sink under the weight of misunderstanding and wasted potential, our economy and our quality of life will sink with them. If our young men succeed as our young women have increasingly been able to do, then this country will succeed with them.
We don’t need to wait on experts to conduct further studies. We don’t need to throw up our hands in despair. I wrote this book to sound a call to action. If we can spread this message widely enough and act on what we now know, we can help restore our country’s place in the global economy. Every young man can, and should, soar like an Eagle.
THE EAGLE METHOD
We start with this simple proposition: those young men who are struggling to succeed as scholars and as productive citizens, including young men of color raised in the most toxic environments and with fewer social supports, are like everyone else. They have the same wants, needs, and desires as other young people, the same joys and disappointments, and the same miraculous potential to flourish and to succeed in good-enough environments. They face exactly the same challenges as young people anywhere—plus additional challenges most others don’t, a barrage of external environmental factors that, at their worst, can turn ordinary childhood toxic. What they need is the support to survive the toxicity of their local environments, so they can get back to the success for which they were intended.
This is less complicated than you may have been led to believe. Young men of color, and black males in particular, have been so overanalyzed in recent years it can sound at times like the “experts” think they have discovered a new species. But even many of the most challenging young men are not essentially different from other young people. They don’t require special schools or some newfangled “experimental” curriculum. However, they do need to be taught in ways designed to reach those who are least prepared to get to college or to thrive there, and to be supported in making full use of their opportunities.
To do this, we have had to answer some very basic questions about young men:
•What do boys need if they are to blossom, both as scholars and as men?
•How can we make sure each young man receives the support necessary to overcome whatever threats his environment may pose, and to reinforce the gifts and strengths he already has?
•Where can families and schools find these additional resources to provide that extra reinforcement in a time of shrinking budgets and lowered expectations?
Who is this “we” I’m talking about? I want to be practical, and limit that “we” to those with a specific self-interest in how young men turn out—essentially, those with something to gain if our young men become productive leaders and citizens, and something to lose if they become a drain on our society. That means parents and teachers, school administrators and mentors, neighbors and employers, taxpayers and entrepreneurs, law enforcement officers and politicians, and anyone whose well-being depends on living on a safe street in a prosperous country. These are the people with an urgent, practical need to help turn our young men around, and that is a very large group indeed. We are all in the same boat. We will rise and fall together with our young men.
In this book I share many of the specific approaches we have developed to help young men succeed, from tapping into their natural competitiveness and peer sensitivity to providing rituals to help structure their days, from finding teachers who know firsthand the obstacles they face to expanding their sense of what the future might hold with guided travel and internship programs.
But if you read this book only to collect techniques for raising your own Eagles, you’ll be left with a bigger problem: Who has the time? Who has the energy? And who can keep up the enthusiasm to do all of these things, consistently, for years? The fact is, most parents are already tired. Teachers work long days to fulfill their ordinary job requirements—how are they going to find it within themselves to do more? The peers that young men trust are often other misguided young men. Budgets are stretched, and our world is littered with increasing distractions for our children and ourselves, whether electronic, chemical, or whatever else. How can we do more for our young men when many of us feel we are stretched thin now?
The Eagle method, as I describe in this book, is to use every part to strengthen the whole. If it takes a village to raise a child, then our method is not just a guide to raising that child, but a system of mutual reinforcement for the hardworking villagers. After all, we are the ones who must show up, and keep showing up, if our children are going to get raised right.
As I describe in chapter six, it’s not enough to get our boys a little mentoring. So many schools and organizations of all types use that word, and may even have what they call a mentoring program that may well be useful. But in our approach, mentors not only work to guide our young men, they do so in ways that support the teachers in the classrooms and the parents at home, that help our young men learn to keep themselves out of danger when they’re away from school, and that make sure they seize opportunities to build an ambitious, practical future when those chances appear. Our mentors help to support everyone who is working to help our young men succeed—and as I’ll explain, every part of the Eagle “family” pitches in to do the same. Every part strengthens the whole.
We begin to establish that larger system of support before we ever meet the young men whose families wish to apply. It begins when families hear the requirements for admission. In fact, there is only one requirement: a young man and a parent must show up at an open house and express interest.
We make those Eagle parents who meet this one requirement a promise. Will we take their son? Even if he struggles to read? Even if he’s in “special ed”? Even if his old school promoted him just to get him out the door? Yes, we will take any young man because we can help any young man to succeed. That’s our promise.
To some parents, it may sound at first like getting something for nothing. All you have to do is show up? But showing up is more demanding than it seems. We will keep asking them to show up as a family for the sake of their son’s education, and in increasing ways. We need our students to join the brotherhood of Eagle students, as I describe in chapter three, and our parents to become true Eagle parents, committed to raising a scholar and helping to support our entire community of scholars, as I explain in chapter four. We need partners at home to support the work of our teachers and mentors. We need parents who will extend the reach and the strength of our school staff and administrators within the school, around the neighborhood, and out into the political landscape.
All that parents and potential students know at the start is that they must come to the school’s open house in person, both parent and child, not just one or the other. In this way we begin to make clear that at Eagle we have our own way of doing things, and if you’re going to become part of our family you’re going to follow our rules—student and parent alike. By meeting that first requirement, families are making a kind of down payment on what will be a long, demanding, and essential commitment.
Do they understand all that? Not yet. Like you, perhaps, reading this book, prospective Eagle students and parents come to our open-house gatherings unsure about what they’re getting into. But they do know that they wish for our young men and our schools to live up to their potential, and they want to discover how that can happen.
When I became principal of the first Eagle Academy in 2004, we didn’t yet have our own school building. We had to share a building with the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice, the school where I’d been principal until the year before and where the majority of students were female. Girls who had been my students would see me in the building and let me know, very clearly, how they felt now that I was no longer with them every morning at town hall meeting, visiting their classes, or reminding them of all they could accomplish. I had been like a father figure to those girls, and now many would call out to me, “You left us! You left us for those boys!”
My response was always “I didn’t leave you. I’m going to straighten out the boys so you girls find some good men out there when you get older.” Men who will be not just be good boyfriends but good husbands and fathers, good employees and entrepreneurs, good taxpayers and leaders and mentors to the next generation.
Often they came right back with “We don’t want to hear it, Mr. Banks! You left us.”
But girls who had graduated and then returned to visit tended to see it differently. They were out in the world, observing the state of young men. Studying and working alongside them. Dating them. When they came back to visit, they told me, “That’s great, Mr. Banks. Thank God! Somebody needs to help the boys.”
How Boys Learn, Succeed, and Develop Character
How Boys Learn, Succeed, and Develop Character
David Banks knows a few things about at-risk boys. In 2004, he petitioned New York City’s mayor to allow an all-boys public school to open in one of the most troubled districts in the country, the South Bronx. He had a point to prove: When rituals that boys are innately drawn to are combined with college prep-level instruction and community mentorship, even the most challenging students can succeed. The result? The Eagle Academy for Young Men—the first all-boys public high school in New York City in more than thirty years—has flourished and has been successfully replicated in other boroughs and other states.
In Soar, Banks shares the experiences of individual kids from the Eagle Academy as well as his own personal story to help others get similar results. He shares the specific approach he and his team use to drive students, from tapping into their natural competitiveness and peer-sensitivity, to providing rituals that mimic their instinctual need for hierarchy and fraternal camaraderie, to finding teachers who know firsthand the obstacles these students face.
Result-oriented and clear-eyed about the challenges and the promises of educating boys at risk, Soar is a book that no one who wants to see our young men flourish—from parents and educators to teachers and employers—can afford to miss.