Eric Brown Shares Strategies for Empowering African-American Male Students

Conference News Online
March 2012

We are on a journey every day, according to Eric Brown, a South Carolina principal who took a failing school with a majority of African-American students and in six years turned it around into an award-winning school. The objective of his presentation on Thursday, March 22, was to offer strategies for empowering African-American males for success that Brown cautioned may or may not work. If one strategy doesn't work then use a different strategy, he advised. You need to think outside the box when selecting strategies for dealing with African-American males.

Three values instilled by his grandparents form the basis of Brown's work:

  1. Manners will take you further than anything else in the world. We need to teach character education and respect.
  2. Education is the key to success. We need to provide role models for our students who may not have them at home.
  3. Everything you do, do with excellence. We need to expect and require the best effort in all tasks for our students.

He asked the question "Are you looking out the window or in the mirror?" and provided two lists on how to improve schools: one with external factors beyond our control like more money from the state and the other with things under our control like an individualized plan that is clear and focused for every student.  Research shows that looking in the mirror and focusing on what we have control over increases student achievement.

Disproportionate numbers of African-American males are referred for discipline, identified for special education and alternative education, unemployed as adults, and incarcerated. The data makes compelling evidence of why we need to improve in educating this sector of our school population.

For African-American males, we need high expectations that convey rigor, relevance, and relationship. What a student believes about himself is really important as no one rises to low expectations. They need compassion not pity. Coaches are good examples of how we need to push harder, build relationships, prepare and motivate. We need to remember that like a race car driver who may hold a lower pole position, it doesn't matter where you start. It matters where you finish.

It takes sustained, collaboration between adults throughout the school community—a village to raise these young men. Teachers need to be aware of the needs of the parents, the learning styles of their students, and the culture in which they live. Administrative leadership and faith-based support are needed to advocate, encourage, and support these students. We must change the way we do business if we are to reach and teach these students.

People believe what they are programmed to believe so we need to repeat positive affirmations, be persistent, and have teachers that encourage. Among the negative approaches that don’t work are punishing students with no recess, giving low grades for no homework, berating students in front of others, and handing out referrals to the office and detention.

Instead when students say it is too hard, we need to let them know the brain is designed to do hard work. We need to teach the way they learn and engage them. Our school culture needs to be defined by adults, or by default it will be defined by students. That culture needs to make it clear that we care about students and their learning. The media makes sports and music success the goal, and we need to replace that message with academic success as the goal.

Attendees of this session left with several stories that Brown used to illustrate his points. These will be useful in staff development back at school to get teachers thinking about what African-American male students can do rather than what they can't do. We can all benefit from a look in the mirror and a more positive, encouraging culture that has high expectations for all. The effort to bring about improvement with African-American males is a journey, not a destination. However, with hard work and persistence, Brown has proved it can be done.

Donna T. Fagerholm, Principal, Sinclair Elementary, Manassas, Virginia