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After Anguish and Grief, a Call to Action

The anguish after George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin was palpable in many communities across the country, but it was felt most prominently in the African American community. I applaud President Obama for his brave, heartfelt words as he attempted to explain to America the heartbreak felt by millions.

As we continue to grapple with the aftermath of the verdict, we must have long overdue, frank discussions about race in America and, more importantly, we must take bold steps to truly transform the lives of young African American men.

Just about every measure of success paints a bleak future for inner city young men: only 52 percent of black males who entered a U.S. public high school in 2006 graduated in four years, while only 18 percent of black males over 25 years old had college degrees in 2010. And black male high school dropouts are 47 times more likely to be incarcerated than male college graduates, according to a 2009 report from Northeastern University.

According to a 2012 report from the Children’s Defense Fund, every year black youth account for nearly half the deaths from gun violence.

As an educator, a parent, and a member of my community, I believe the tragic death of Trayvon Martin must serve as a catalyst to help young African American men achieve their full potential to become responsible, committed men, husbands, fathers, and contributors to a larger society.

It is incumbent upon all of us to help solve the crisis of young black males. This is the mission of the Eagle Academy for Young Men.

In 2004, we opened our first all-boys public school in the Bronx. By September, we will operate five schools in the New York and New Jersey area, educating close to 2,000 young men.

We focus on boys entering the sixth grade and work with them six days a week through the 12th grade. Our students hail from some of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in the city–many of them passing violence and crime on their way into the classroom.

We provide a safe haven that is committed to equipping each boy with the education and confidence he needs to succeed.

We believe in mentors: Each student who passes through the Academy doors is assigned an adult male mentor who helps with the educational transition. Men giving real time to their children and the young people in their neighborhood are an essential part of the solution. It’s the only way to overcome the staggering statistics of fatherlessness in our community.

According to the U.S. Census, in 1920, 90 percent of black children lived with their dads. In 1960, it was 80 percent. Today, only 32 percent of black households have fathers. When young men do not have dads or responsible men as role models in their lives, they create their own definition of manhood for themselves—and often, they miss the mark!

We believe in parental involvement: every child’s parents are recruited to serve on a school committee. I cannot overstress the importance of a parent taking a stake in his or her child’s learning.

We believe that whole communities play a role in educating boys of color: Our boys are required to commit to community service, particularly in the neighborhoods where they are educated. In turn, we forge partnerships with area faith-based institutions to provide additional support for our young men, such as mentors and volunteers.

We believe in teaching our kids about the rich cultural history of African Americans. Institutions like the Schomburg Center in Harlem and the Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site are dedicated to teaching young people about the great contributions we have made to this country and the world, and could go a long way to help with teachable moments to curtail self-destructive behavior.

And we have reason to believe our approach is working. In spite of the fact that 25 percent of our students are designated as “special needs,” we have a graduation rate of more than 80 percent—far outpacing the rates of our traditional school counterparts. And 85 percent of our alumni continue on to finish college.

According to the New York City Department of Education, the overall black–white achievement gap on graduation rates went from 24 points in 2005 to 19 points in 2011, a reduction of five points, or 21 percent. The Hispanic–white gap in graduation rates went from 27 points in 2005 to 20 points in 2011, a decrease of down seven points, or 26 percent.

I am honored to have contributed to these improvements and am humbled by the opportunity to continue doing so. I believe that the Eagle Academy’s model for young men of color is one that could be replicated across the country.

The Eagle Academy for Young Men receives support from the Open Society Foundations. David Banks is an Open Society Foundations Black Male Achievement Social Innovator.

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