Alan Johnson, acting superintendent in the Woodland Hills School District, isn't afraid to share his district's unflattering statistics regarding the lack of academic achievement among African-American male students.
At Woodland Hills, African-American males make up one-third of the school population but account for 50 percent of the dropouts. Of the 417 students in Advanced Placement classes, just 7 percent are African-American and only a handful are members of the National Honor Society.
In addition, at Woodland Hills, black male students are 20 times more likely than white male students to be expelled.
"We have to confront the data," Mr. Johnson said.
He was commended for his honesty by Derrick Lopez, president and CEO of the Homewood Children's Village.
"Every public high school in Allegheny County has some data for African-American males, but others sugarcoat it and hide it," Mr. Lopez said.
Both men were among participants at a daylong conference called "A Call to Conscience: Effective Policies and Practices in Educating African American Males" hosted by the University of Pittsburgh's Center on Race and Social Problems last week and sponsored by the Heinz Endowments.
Keynote speaker John Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, said in 36 of 50 states black males are at the bottom of the achievement scale and that nationally about 51 percent graduate high school within five years. He encouraged local educators to discuss how to help black male students succeed and how to change polices and practices that may be preventing their success, including strict discipline policies that call for automatic suspensions for certain offenses.
"Far too many students are being pushed out of school through suspensions," said Mr. Jackson, who called for a moratorium on all out-of-school suspensions.
Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane said her district approved a new code of conduct ensuring that students are not cited for disorderly conduct for minor offenses and that district officials are working with the Education Law Center on a major rewrite of the conduct code. Acknowledging that African-American male students are more likely than others to be suspended, Ms. Lane said the Pittsburgh district is looking to reduce the number of suspensions but still keep the schools under control.
Woodland Hills and Propel charter schools each received $750,000 grants from the Heinz Endowments' African American Men and Boys Task Force to implement programs to promote academic achievement among black male students.
At Woodland Hills, the district created the Delaney Scholars program, named after Martin Delaney, a political activist who died in 1885 who was among the first to advocate professional training rather than manual labor for blacks. The program encourages black male students to strive for a grade point average of 3.5 or higher, enroll in honors or AP classes and agree to come to after-school tutoring classes.
Propel used the grant money to create Project HOPE, which stands for Healthy Opportunities to Pursue Excellence. The program includes mentors who work one on one with black male students, encouraging them to identify and emulate the attributes of a scholar and to see academic success as a strength.
"The frank reality is that African-American males have trouble finding role models that emulate attributes that would make it possible to do well in school. They may think that to do well in school is emasculating," said Floyd Cephas Jr., Propel's behavior coach.
Jeremy Resnick, Propel's executive director, said Project HOPE, which started in the 2012-13 school year, prompted a 44 percent reduction in unexcused absences and a 68 percent reduction in referrals.
The educators spoke of issues outside of the classroom that affect their black male students.
Ms. Lane pointed to two black male high school students who won a national award and $3,000 scholarships at the African-American History Academic Challenge Bowl. But, she pointed out, they are both natives of West Africa. She said African students born outside of the U.S. succeed more often than those born inside.
"Maybe African-American males have more freedom in their neighborhoods and maybe they are more affected by their neighborhoods," she said.
McKeesport superintendent Timothy Gabauer also talked about how pressures from the community affect the school district.
"In the last school year, three of our African-American male students were killed because of violence in the streets. That's a very challenging thing to take on," he said.
He said the district has tried to partner with community groups and religious leaders and has created a diversity committee of the school board to discuss the issues.
The district also is making an effort to recruit more African-American teachers who can serve as role models to the students, 51 percent of whom are minority. He's also identified 40 African-American males in the community to serve as mentors to students.
"We are not to the point where we are touting major successes," Mr. Gabauer said. "But we are laying the foundation."
Mary Niederberger: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1590.