Mayor Muriel Bowser launched the new “500 for 500: Mentoring Through Literacy” program in conjunction with D.C. Public Schools, the Metropolitan Police Department and Howard University on Sept. 28.
The project aims to bridge the achievement gap between uneducated young men of color and their academic counterparts by enlisting 500 adult mentors for 500 black and Latino boys from the Washington area over the next two years.
The program is an extension of the Empowering Males of Color Initiative, launched by D.C. Schools Chancellor Kayla Henderson in January 2014. EMOC, with a similar mission to President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, is a $20 million investment, offering support services for historically disadvantaged minority youths enrolled in D.C. schools. Additionally, it resolves to construct an all-boys Urban Prep Academy east of the Anacostia River by 2018.
According to Bowser’s spokeswoman LaToya Foster, the volunteer mentors will promote literacy and a love of learning among struggling students, while also serving as role models for young men of color.
“One of the main things they’ll try to encourage is for these kids to read, read, read,” Foster said. “But for a lot of them, it’ll be more than that. Many of these kids are missing father figures, and mentors give them someone to look up to.”
She added that Bowser conceptualized the initiative after reading and discussing President Barack Obama’s novel “The Audacity of Hope” with a group of eight young men of color. The conversation addressed the issue of policy implementation in helping disadvantaged minority students.
Bowser herself has signed on as one of the program’s first mentors, providing guidance for 6-year-old Tyler Towles of Malcolm X Elementary School.
The program also signifies a partnership across different Washington institutions, as both the MPD and Howard University have pledged to provide mentorship opportunities on a weekly basis starting in October.
“It’s very significant that the MPD is involved,” Foster said. “We’re fortunate here in D.C. that we don’t have tensions at the scale of those found elsewhere in the country, such as Ferguson, but it’s still vitally important that kids feel empowered to trust the police through positive connections with them. We have these partnerships with MPD and Howard because it definitely takes a village for these children.”
Together, black and Hispanic males constitute 43 percent of all DCPS students. Both groups have consistently underperformed compared to girls and children of other backgrounds in areas such as reading and math benchmark exams, school attendance, enrollment in Advanced Placement classes and graduation rates, according to data released by the EMOC in January.
In the 2014 school year, only 32 and 43 percent of black and Hispanic males, respectively, demonstrated proficiency in reading through the District of Columbia Comprehensive Assessment System administered to students in the second to 10th grades. Math scores were similarly low, indicating proficiency achieved by 37 and 55 percent for each demographic respectively.
Black and Hispanic males also represent the two groups with the District’s lowest graduation rates at 48 and 57 percent, respectively, compared with 82-percent of white males graduating in 2014.
Associate professor of sociology Brian McCabe (SFS ’02), whose research specializes in urban structures and social inequality, said this disparity is a result of complex issues within the District. McCabe cited the near-segregation of schools in Wards 7 and 8, which are predominantly impoverished and black.
“In cities in general but in Washington specifically, you have neighborhood conditions that are not conducive for students learning and students achieving,” McCabe said. “You don’t see a very racially integrated class setting, so I think a lot of this goes back to the kinds of neighborhoods we have created: neighborhoods without a lot of resources, neighborhoods without great schools, without great role models that are segregated from the other parts of the city.”
According to McCabe, this lack of adequate education manifests itself later in students’ lives, from higher education to the workplace.
“Graduation from high school is a predictor of a lot of things,” McCabe said. “It predicts market outcomes, whether or not you get a job, also all sorts of health outcomes, teen pregnancy outcomes. Over the last few decades, there used to be a very steady working class or manufacturing job ready for you even if you didn’t have a high school degree, and you could still get a steady income from it. But there are not a lot of jobs that exist like that today.”
Though McCabe said these services could potentially bolster academic performance among struggling students, he maintained that true progress can only be achieved by directly addressing problems within the D.C. school system.
“Generally, I think tutoring programs are a good supplement to some of the work that should be done in school, but it also raises the question about why we need voluntary tutors,” McCabe said. “There’s no problem with voluntary tutors, and as long as you have schools that are underperforming they are a great resource, but the question remains why these schools are sometimes failing to provide for their students in the first place.”
Jake Robinson (SFS ’16), a former coordinator for the D.C. Reads program, which provides tutoring for inner-city elementary school students, said that tutoring programs play a pivotal role in fostering academic progress among disadvantaged students.
“I think mentorship programs have a huge part in helping kids realize their own potential and really realize their strengths as individuals,” Robinson said. “Ward 7 is a very resource-depleted community, and it’s definitely nothing to do with the nature of the people that live there. Having forged relationships with students in that community, I can tell you they are just as intelligent and creative and passionate and driven, but it’s just a matter of having the resources to see that intelligence and creativity allow to grow.”
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