Steffanie Rivers

*I was sitting in a hospital waiting room last week when a young woman asked for my help filling out paperwork so she could receive treatment. She said she had a severe ear and headache, but didn’t know how to spell “ear” or “headache.” So I wrote it down for her and she thanked me.

The woman, who looked to be at least 20 years old, had a young boy at her heels who probably was no more than four. And I couldn’t help thinking that if his mother couldn’t spell the chance that he will take education seriously enough to excel in school is slim to none and his future is at stake.

Sure, there are some children of parents with limited formal education who go on to achieve great things. But with so many opportunities to learn to read chances are if a mother didn’t take advantage of those opportunities she won’t understand the need to motivate her son to do so either. And if he doesn’t get that motivation at home he’ll be hard pressed to find it elsewhere.

A recent study of education in America revealed that only 47 percent of black males graduate from high school on time, compared to 78 percent of white male students. According to the study, urban districts are among the worst at graduating black males: Detroit, 27 percent; Philadelphia, 28 percent; New York, 28 percent; and St. Louis, 38 percent.

As a result of the findings, some black educators concluded the American education system has failed black boys by not providing them with the tools to succeed. While I agree that any service provider – in this case the collective Board of Education – should evaluate its customer demographics to ensure that it gives the best service possible to its multi-cultural clientele – it’s important to remember that a system that was not originally designed for black boys can’t be expected to provide the best for black boys. It’s akin to expecting a father to breast-feed his newborn: Although he can give adequate care for his child, some things are beyond his capabilities.

That’s not to say that boys of color can’t succeed in a traditional public education setting. There’s a long list of notables to prove the affirmative and always those people who will succeed against all odds. But they aren’t the ones we need to worry about; it is the under-achievers who might require non-traditional methods of learning to succeed; the ones who need extra time with a teacher or tutor to grasp basic education principles; the ones with parents like the mother in the hospital waiting room who need other family members or friends to stand in the gap.

The sooner that education experts in America realize that expecting traditional public school settings to fulfill the needs of every child regardless of ethic differences of the masses, the more time they will have to focus on solutions that involve more parental responsibility and community involvement.

Sure, there are some children of parents with limited formal education who go on to achieve great things. But with so many opportunities to learn to read chances are if a mother didn’t take advantage of those opportunities she won’t understand the need to motivate her son to do so either. And if he doesn’t get that motivation at home he’ll be hard pressed to find it elsewhere.

Steffanie is a freelance journalist living in the Dallas, Texas metroplex. Send questions, comments or requests for speaking engagements to Steffanie at [email protected]. And see the video version of her journal at www.youtube.com/steffanierivers.