Only 33.2 percent of black male third-graders in Palm Beach County were proficient in reading in 2014, far below the overall male proficiency rate of 51.1 percent.
By 10th grade, the reading gap was even larger. Just 26.3 percent of black males — a little more than one in four — were proficient while the overall male proficiency rate was 52.1 percent. Eighth-grade math was another black hole. Just below 33 percent of black males were proficient while the overall proficiency rate stood at 51.1 percent.
The numbers are a statistical blueprint for mass failure. But as wretched as those figures are, they have lost their shock value.
Now a task force of Palm Beach County officials is trying to change that.
The Palm Beach County My Brother’s Keeper Task Force is scheduled to meet Tuesday to launch an action plan aimed at raising awareness of the struggles of black and Hispanic boys and young men. The group will meet from 5:30-7:30 p.m. on the sixth floor of the county government center at 301 N. Olive Ave. in West Palm Beach.
The task force, the local offshoot of a national initiative started by President Barack Obama last year, is led by James Green, director of the Outreach and Community Programming Division of the county’s Youth Services Department.
Green said the goal is to gather a vast set of facts highlighting the disparate performances and outcomes for black and Hispanic boys in a range of areas, including education and criminal justice. Those facts will establish a sort of baseline that will be used to measure progress.
Policy reviews will be conducted to see if there are systemic practices that contribute to the struggles of black and Hispanic boys and young men. Mentoring will pair adults with black and Hispanic boys and young men.
More than anything, Green said, the goal will be to change the perception that it’s OK for black and Hispanic boys and young men to flunk, drop out, be under-employed and over-represented in jails.
“We can’t go in thinking, ‘They can’t do it,’” Green said. “’They don’t have the ability to do it.’ They can. There has to be a paradigm shift.”
The president spelled out his thoughts behind the initiative during a speech last year in the East Room of the White House.
“The plain fact is there are some Americans who, in the aggregate, are consistently doing worse in our society — groups that have had the odds stacked against them in unique ways that require unique solutions, groups who’ve seen fewer opportunities that have spanned generations,” Obama said. “And by almost every measure, the group that is facing some of the most severe challenges in the 21st century in this country are boys and young men of color.”
Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative is aimed at black, Hispanic and American Indian boys and young men. The president issued a challenge to local communities to find ways to combat problems black, Hispanic and American Indian boys face.
Palm Beach County Commissioner Priscilla Taylor held a meeting in November to kick off the county’s effort, which will focus heavily on black and Hispanic youth, as the number of American Indian youth here is small and data on them is limited.
“I accepted the challenge on the part of the county commission,” Taylor said. “This is the beginning. There is a lot for us to do to make a difference in the community.”
On a variety of fronts, data show black youth to be struggling even more than Hispanic youth.
Black youth are more likely than Hispanic or white students to be suspended from school. They are more likely to be charged as adults for criminal offenses. And if they are convicted of a criminal offense as an adult, their criminal record is not sealed as it would be if they had been charged as a juvenile. That means explaining the conviction to a would-be employer, and it means great difficulty getting a loan or getting accepted into a college or university.
Green said policymakers and members of the general public know of the struggles of black and Hispanic youth but don’t think about them much until there is a violent flare-up as there was after police shootings in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo.
“There’s no real sense of urgency around it,” Green said. “We’re trying to create it. We continue to address the symptoms and not the source. We’re reactive, not proactive.”
TO GET INVOLVED
The Palm Beach County My Brother’s Keeper Task Force is looking for groups and individuals 21 years and older who are interested in mentoring black and Hispanic youth. To learn more, call Lashawna Howard at 561-242-5713 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org and provide your name, email and telephone number.