Jacket and Tie

Last year, while wandering around the web, I came across a stirring video.

It told the tale of the graduating class of Englewood Prep in Chicago. The story wasn’t just that all 107 graduating seniors had received college acceptance letters.

No, what caught my eye, and moved me damn near to tears was that all 107 members of the Englewood Prep class were young, black and male. These were boys who came from difficult circumstances and tough neighborhoods. Few people, if any, had lofty expectations for them.

But now here they were, celebrating their college acceptance letters. The video showed them in the gym bleachers, dressed in jackets and ties, standing and applauding each other as their astounding achievement was announced.

Their shared pride was powerful to see. And you wanted to believe in the story, if for no other reason than someone was finally trying
something different.

And now there is the chance for such a story to be told in Madison. According to a recent Capital Times piece by Susan Troller, the
president of the Urban League of Greater Madison, Kaleem Caire, has a vision. Caire, a Madison West alum, is working to create a school for Madison-area boys of color only, covering grades six through twelve. The school would have a strict academic regimen for the boys in their most formative years.

The Cap Times’s online message board was alive with comments, as any story alluding to race in America is sure to provoke. But it is hard to see anything bad about considering this progressive move when the stark statistics about young black American males are examined.

Go to Google. Regardless of political bias, the state of young black men in our country must be seen as a condition of chronic societal problems with few transformational solutions.

Look at unemployment stats. Testing and college data. Prison enrollment. Drug use and violent crime reports. Fatherless household numbers. The litany is shattering.

It is not an illogical leap to state that the social health of young black males is our nation’s single greatest domestic issue, with costs and pain that ripple across all of our lives.

It is the problem that we, America, can’t solve.

The explanations for this situation are abundant and controversial. But whether a citizen views the core issue as white racism, bureaucratic bungling and waste, or collective parental irresponsibility in poorer black communities, the one thing most everyone can agree on is that there is a problem.

And over the last few decades this problem has arrived in Madison. We now have a fixed underclass, suffering from issues our local systems still struggle to understand and confront. These problems manifest themselves every single day in Madison schools, buses, neighborhoods and emergency rooms, with teachers, cops and hospital staff manning the front lines where poverty and ignorance
combine to create chaos.

We also see it in the quiet migration few speak of in Madison; the white flight to suburban communities that surround our city. Outside the city, school enrollments are still overwhelmingly white, while populations of color in the county have increased.

Further compounding the problem is that we still seem to lack language to speak honestly of the issues. White folks seem skittish, defensive and fearful of using the wrong word. And black Madisonians share frustration and anger, often struggling to be understood.

And so we, all of us, end up with lost children.

But there are signs of hope. And solutions. Best of all, they are coming, almost spontaneously, from black communities around America. Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem’s Children Zone has created a national sensation with his revolutionary teaching and educational community creation involving both students and parents. Others now argue, not unlike Caire, that a return to a sort of enlightened segregation, derivative of America’s black colleges, may be a solution.

That is why the Englewood grads and Kaleem Caire’s proposal are so intriguing. They offer emergent black solutions to problems that the nation has not come close to solving for decades. Imagine a society where whole populations of young people are viewed not as a liability but an asset? How could there not be benefit and savings for all?

Of course there will be opposition to this educational alternative in Madison. There always is.

But here is a response to those objections.

Ask folks to take a look at the cost and productivity of the Chicago, Detroit or Milwaukee public school systems and ask one thing: Got any better ideas?

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Comments? Questions? Write johneroach@mac.com.

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