Statistics show that black men are far less likely than their female or white counterparts to graduate from high school and even less likely to attend college.
Robert Morris University, with help from the Heinz Endowments, is hoping to create a model that will break that mold and provide young African-American males with the secrets to success in education and beyond.
The university is the recipient of a $900,000 grant from the Heinz Endowments, which it will match with $900,000 it plans to raise, to create the RMU Research Center on Black Male Educational Student Success. Rex Crawley, assistant dean of the School of Communications and Information Systems, will chair the center, which will be the first endowed chair and research center at Robert Morris.
Mr. Crawley said a multitude of research studies document the obstacles to success that face young black men, obstacles that are largely associated with socioeconomic stresses.
But the goal of the Robert Morris center will be to document the characteristics of black males who have achieved educational and economic success.
In addition to creating a model for success, the center will conduct studies to track the experiences of black men as they move through the educational system.
"The goal and the laser focus of the center really is to identify success factors. There are these phenomenal success stories out there. We see it as our work to really hone in on those success stories and try to pull out some of those experiences we think are replicable," said Mr. Crawley, who holds a doctorate in intercultural communications from Ohio University and has done research focusing on the experiences of African-American men.
The idea for the research center is an outgrowth of the work he has done with the Black Male Leadership Development Institute, designed to help young men ages 14-18 develop skills for personal success, expose them to role models and teach leadership skills. The institute was founded by Mr. Crawley and representatives from the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh and receives support from the Heinz Endowments and the Buhl Foundation.
It brings 75-100 young black men to the Robert Morris campus in Moon for a week in which they learn communication and leadership skills and are encouraged to pursue education.It also provides weekend educational activities throughout the year.
"Because of that particular model, we saw some promise in being able to take something to scale," said Stanley Thompson, director of the education program at the Heinz Endowments.
"Instead of having an impact on 75 to 100 African-American males, it's looking at the opportunity of being able to invest in a model that is much more formal in its ability to create scholarly research and best practices that show how African-American males can be successful in achieving educational outcomes from high school through higher education and careers," Mr. Thompson said.
Mr. Crawley said improving academic success among African-American males is part of the endowments' overall strategy which focuses on equity in education. In November, the Heinz Endowments awarded $750,000 grants to the Woodland Hills School District and Propel charter schools to implement programs to help improve academic achievement among black male students.
Mr. Crawley said there will be a "collective synergy" between the work of the school districts and the Robert Morris research center.
Both Mr. Crawley and Mr. Thompson look to the Robert Morris research center to become a national resource. Mr. Crawley said he has not been able to find another university doing this type of research, though he said the proposal for the Robert Morris center cites the work of University of Pennsylvania education professor Shaun Harper, who has documented the successes of African-American males and studied black male college access and achievement.
Mr. Crawley said the pool of successful black men to be studied by the Robert Morris center will likely come from two African-American fraternities to which he belongs: Sigma Pi Phi and Kappa Alpha Psi, of which he is regional director.
"Sigma Pi Phi is the oldest African-American fraternity group with the most prestigious members of the black community in Pittsburgh. These are men who are way beyond high achievers. We will have incredible access to high-achieving African-American males," Mr. Crawley said.
Mr. Crawley said he expects the center to be ready for operation by January and is in the process of assembling his research team, whose members will decide the best way to gather the data they are seeking. But he figures some of the answers will come from the experiences of the men studied.
From personal experience, Mr. Crawley said, he had a professor in his master's program who identified Mr. Crawley as a struggling reader. He suggested Mr. Crawley take a course offered at the college library to improve his reading. The course, he said, changed the trajectory of his academic career by greatly improving his reading and comprehension skills.
As a result, Mr. Crawley, who mentors students as part of the Black Male Excellence Network at Robert Morris, often refers struggling students to find ways to improve their reading, which leads to improved grades.
"These are the kinds of things that I hope will come out of this," he said.
Mary Niederberger: firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-1590.