Failing a generation

North Carolina is failing African-American children, literally and figuratively, and most state leaders don’t seem too worried about it. Less than half the African-American males who enter the ninth grade graduate from high school four years later — a statistic that rarely makes it into any speech by Gov. Mike Easley or state education officials.

A report from the North Carolina Child Advocacy Institute last fall found that six out of every 10 African-American male students in the state’s public schools are suspended at some point during the year. The suspension rate is almost twice the national average, and the number of suspensions has doubled between fifth and sixth grade in each of the last four years.

The statistics are so startling that you have to read them more than once to make sure you’ve got it right. Half of black male students drop out of high school, and more than half of black males are suspended during the school year.

The state fails the children, then locks them up. Black males make up 12 percent of the state’s population but more than 60 percent of the population behind bars. Eighty-five percent of juveniles in the court system are dropouts, and 75 percent of prison inmates don’t have a high-school diploma.

There could not be clearer evidence of a crisis. African-American kids are struggling in school: more likely to be suspended, more likely to drop out, more likely to end up in prison. And more likely to be forgotten by state policy-makers.

There are no easy answers, but that’s no excuse for not trying to solve a problem that is devastating an entire generation. True, parents and the students themselves bear some of the responsibility for their plight. But the state is responsible too, and it’s failing both the kids and their families.

There are plenty of reasons why kids drop out, misbehave or fail to learn. But first, the state has to decide that it wants to address the crisis rather than ignoring it, suspending the kids, letting them drop out — and then building more prison cells.

There are some successful efforts under way. Communities in Schools, a community-based support group, marshals local volunteers and resources to help at-risk students stay in school. Nationally, the program has a 98 percent success rate in deterring suspensions.

At present, however, the program operates in only a third of North Carolina’s 100 counties. Two-thirds of the group’s funding comes from the state, and for less than $10 million, the program could reach every county. That ought to be the first thing lawmakers fund in the upcoming short session.

Then, state leaders need to admit that there’s a connection between cutting human-services programs and having kids struggle in our schools. Helping families living in poverty helps children, period.

That’s why the long waiting lists for daycare subsidies and other services must be reduced and then eliminated. That’s why lawmakers should raise the minimum wage and allocate a lot more money for the North Carolina Housing Trust Fund, which provides affordable housing for families.

Funding community services and after-school programs would help. Fully funding remediation programs for struggling students before they fail would help. There are plenty of proven solutions and programs available.

And it’s not just a question of money either. We need leadership that’s willing to ask the tough questions — and listen to perhaps-unpleasant answers.

The current strategy of simply ignoring the problem is no solution at all, and it’s condemning much of a generation to failure. How many more kids do we want to lose?

[Chris Fitzsimon, executive director of NC Policy Watch, presents his take on key issues facing North Carolina in a daily column offered free to media outlets.]

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