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The Power of School Culture: Addressing the Issue of Systematic Failure for Black Males

L Cubed's picture

   It can be argued that the U.S. has created and maintained a culture of black males who feel trapped in the stereotypes of society and therefore often fall into them. With no one expecting them to amount to anything but a statistic, African-American males subconsciously fulfill the roles of high school dropout, drug dealer, criminal, gangster, jock, and teen father. They continuously feed into a system that exploits rather than supports them. The education system, being one that prides itself in creating equal opportunity for all, reinforces the negative stereotypes associated with black males and their perceived inability to achieve in an academic setting. With this in mind, how do we transform a system that puts little faith in the success of what I often call a troubled and misunderstood minority?

This prevailing question is one pertinent to our current education system that continues to fail over half of the nation’s African-American males. Statistics released by “Yes We Can: The 2010 Schott 50 State Report on Black Males in Public Education” place the nation’s graduation rate for African-American males at a mere 47 percent, calling it“ a national and economic crisis”[1].  These and other alarming statistics expose the disservice of the public school system for African-American males by not providing them with the proper resources to learn and reach higher levels of academic success.

While certainly disturbing, these findings come as no surprise to those who have committed to solving this reigning issue of inequality. Nevertheless, courses of action are being taken on many different levels in efforts to put an end to this cycle of systematic failure and foster a mentality of progressive success and achievement in the lives of black males. In the search for answers, fellow activist, mentor and founding principal of Excellence Boys Charter School, Jabali Sawicki, made clear, “It becomes a question of school culture: can a school create an environment where African American males feel a seamless association with academic success?”[2]

This question, while presented as an almost obvious one, is quite complex and multifaceted as words or phrases like “environment” and “seamless association with academic success” resonate around the current state of the African American male. The impact of these words or phrases on the success and failure of black male students is one that must be recognized in efforts to provide them with adequate resources that ensure their overall success.

In thinking on the word “environment, one is reminded of the phrase, “we are all products of our environment.”  Our surroundings and experiences within those surroundings directly influence who we are as well as who we choose not to be. Hence, it could be argued that the more dissimilar environments we place ourselves in, the more options we create for who we can become. Within the current school system as well as within society as a whole, do these environments exist for black males?

According to the statistics released by Schott as well as those confirming the ill state of black males (incarceration rate, poverty level, unemployment), this population continues to live in an oppressive environment that hinders their advancement.   While their environments may change with respect to physical setting, their experience with alienation and inferiority still remains. Unfortunately, the insensitive and unsupportive environment that they face outside is the same one that they encounter in school. As products of their environment, black males “are socialized to feel there is a restriction on what they can become”[3] This belief, also shared by Mr. Sawiki, is what prompted his decision to open Excellence Boys Charter School (EBCS) in 2004 as an all-boys charter school for low-income minority students. Cognizant of the affects the environment has on black males and their self-awareness, Mr. Sawicki’s desire was to create and establish a model of the environment conducive for the success of its black male students through EBCS.

EBCS provides its students with a strong and supportive environment based on eight core values of scholarship, brotherhood, honesty, justice, respect, hope, courage and love.  Not only are these values displayed in every classroom, but they are instilled in the hearts and minds of every scholar that walks its hallways. Throughout the day, scholars are praised for practicing these values and at the end of every week the boys attend a community meeting where one of the scholars is recognized for their demonstration of one of the core values. By constantly reinforcing these values, EBCS scholars are made aware of the environment that they can create for themselves, one in which they have the support and power to be whatever is they want to be. But how does this awareness translate outside of EBCS? Is the environment supported by EBCS one that can overshadow the oppressive environment that these young boys grow up and live in beyond school walls?

While these students are repeatedly encouraged that they can and will achieve, outside of school they are often made to feel that they can’t. Despite the fact that EBCS has longer school days and an extended school year so that scholars spend majority of their time in school, society’s impeding stereotypes and low expectations are still ever-present.  Hence, a question of effectiveness comes into play: are these eight core values really internalized or are they simply demonstrated by these scholars for the sake of obedience and maintaining school structure? While there is no direct answer to this question given that the school is so young and the date has not yet been drawn, EBCS continues to promote and environment conducive for success that nurtures the development of the whole student.

Not only is the environment a major factor influencing the success of black male students, but just as important is their “seamless association with academic success” or the lack thereof. Aware of the disservice of the school system, black males put little trust in the education system and its presumed benefits. In addition, some struggle with a disconnect between what they are learning in school and living in the streets. As a result they often fall prey to a street culture that “often fosters the image that academic excellence is not cool and is unmasculine for boys.”[4]

 Providing further ammunition for this notion of academic success as being undesirable is the lack of positive role models. Reflecting on the presence of negative roles models within the black community in which he grew up and worked in, Mr. Sawicki stated, “There is really no focus on scholarship, academics, intellectual achievement, and professional success”. The combination of disservice on the part of schools, disconnection and disinterest within black male students, and lack of positive role models in the black community produce an infectious and destructive cycle. In an effort to dismantle this vicious cycle and restore a willingness and desire to achieve academically, Mr. Sawicki was adamant about providing what educator and author, Thereasa Perry calls “a culture of achievement that extends to all its members”[5]. One may wonder how such a culture can be accomplished.

At EBCS, every child is expected to perform to the best of their abilities. As Mr. Sawicki explains, EBCS attempts to “create an environment where the coolest thing young boys can be is smart.”[6] The school as a whole sets high expectations for their scholars and ensures that every scholar meets those expectations by any means necessary. Teachers expect their students to work hard and show perseverance through hardship and struggle. With the support and guidance of faculty and staff, students are constantly pushed to go above and beyond what is asked of them. At the end of the day, they are all reminded of how their hard work will guarantee their success and get them into and through college. But, is the academic rigor present at EBCS more detrimental than helpful to the students’ future careers as learners?

Considering that these students are only at the beginning of their academic career, is their a point at which pushing them can result in future burn out? Is the simple concept of “working hard” in itself a reinforcement of inferiority or inadequacy?    These are questions worth looking into as further discussion and data is released on the topic.

According to an article by Marian Wright Edelman, “Excellence's success is measurable. Last year, the third-graders were the first in the school to take the standardized New York State Math and Language Arts Exams. Their performance was superb. Ninety-two percent of the students earned advanced or proficient scores in language arts, and 100 percent received advanced or proficient scores in math.”[7]Although EBCS is a young school constantly making adjustments to fit the needs of its students and the communities in which they live, it has made evident that given the right tools, academic success is something that can be achieved by African-American males. Through EBCS, Mr. Sawicki has made enormous strides in answering his own question of the culture of schooling and its impact on the overall success of black males. As Mr. Sawicki will honestly tell you, “Excellence Boys is not perfect. We have along way to go and every second counts.”

The current state of education and its failure to provide a system that warrants the academic achievement and advancement of African-American males call for drastic changes to be made within the culture of schooling. While it is still not yet apparent what this culture should embody, Excellence Boys Charter School provides an excellent model. Having said that, there are still many issues that need to be addressed as we attempt to transform a system that has failed African-American males from its very beginnings. These issues range from those that are immediate, such as issues of accountability, to those that may arise gradually, such as issues with the cost of higher education as more and more black males become college ready. Whatever issues may arise, we must do whatever is in our power to grant students the equal opportunity to learn, achieve, and reach their highest potential.

[1] Schott Foundation for Public Education. (2010). New Report “Yes We Can”: Shows America’s Public Schools Fail Over the Nation’s Black Male Students. Retrieved from

[2] (Magazine 2008) Guest panelist on CNN’s Reclaiming The Dream special in July 2008-Founding Principal, Excellence Charter School. 2010 Summer Research. Retrieved from

[3] (Magazine 2008) Guest panelist on CNN’s Reclaiming The Dream special in July 2008-Founding Principal, Excellence Charter School. 2010 Summer Research. Retrieved from

[4] Rujumba, Karamagi. (2010, July 19). “Many question value of single-gender schools”. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved from

[5] Perry, Thereasa. Young, Gifted, and Black (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2003), 107.

[6] Levy, Julie. (2004, September 7). “Every Second Counts at This School”. The New York Sun. Retrieved from

[7] Edelman, Marian Wright. (2008, January 7). “Excellence Charter School- A Model for Academic Achievment”. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from




Paul Grobstein's picture

Education and black males

"Is the simple concept of “working hard” in itself a reinforcement of inferiority or inadequacy?"

I don't at all doubt that urgency of doing something to assure greater black male success in the educational system, nor the value of initiatives like Excellence Boys Charter School. At the same time, I worry a bit about the desirability of replicating in such contexts an ideal borrowed from dominant educational tradition that we are in other contexts doubting the validity of.   Maybe a greater focus on individuality, creativity, and adaptability rather than on "academic achievement" would a better way to go for all students?  For more along these lines, see Afrian American student mobility through education, and my comment following