Youth Radio’s Pendarvis Harshaw tries to keep black high school students from dropping out.
By Pendarvis Harshaw
The phrase “I don’t give an F-Bomb” resonates throughout high school hallways every day, especially in Oakland public schools. Which begs the question: how do you get students to actually give a flying F-bomb?
The numbers show that young black men drop out of school at higher rates, and are more likely to be incarcerated than other groups. Earlier this year I worked as an educator in the Oakland schools, in a pilot program designed to prevent young black men from dropping out. My students, all freshmen in high school, were in my class because of discipline issues, low attendance, or academic shortcomings. We called our class the Young Lion’s Lair.
To maintain focus, we did pushups. We did wall sits. We did sets of 20 jumping jacks. And everyone had to stop at the same time, or else we’d do it again.
At the start of class, we’d toss around a tennis ball and review the prior day’s lesson. And at the end of class we’d toss around that same ball and review what we learned that day.
We discussed a holistic approach to manhood. It was protocol for each young man to stand whenever he spoke. And when they spoke out of turn, it was mandatory that they say “I apologize.” I asked them not to say “I’m sorry,” because they weren’t sorry young men.
Attendance shot up. Discipline issues decreased. Their grades didn’t change during the semester I worked with them, but I could tell they were learning. Everyday there’d be a moment when one of my students would have a tiny breakthrough and I’d exclaim “hot damn.” It was equivalent to getting a star in kindergarten, and it was a constant reminder that we were progressing.
One day I asked my students to read aloud from Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.” They were reluctant to read in front of their peers, but eventually one student began… “I am an invisible man.”
Student after student read with increasing excitement. They were into it, and pleaded with me to bring in additional chapters. It was as if Ellison was narrating their lives. “I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind.”
With a Perspective, I’m Pendarvis Harshaw.