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'A ton of barriers to staying in school'

Scholar and mentor Bill McKinney discusses efforts to change the odds of graduation for Black and Latino boys.
  • mckinney with mentees
    Photo: Harvey Finkle




Graduation rates among Black and Latino males are only 53 and 43 percent respectively, not much improved from when the District's African American and Latino Male Dropout Taskforce looked at the problem two years ago.

Bill McKinney, former chair of the taskforce and board chair of Men in Motion in the Community (MIMIC), an organization that mentors Black and Latino boys, says dealing with this crisis means having to acknowledge the challenges of their environment, personal struggles, and school-based problems.

McKinney, who has lived in Kensington for 10 years, mentors three young men in the community through his work with MIMIC. He is also the director of the Howard Samuels Center at the City University of New York, a research center focused on studying how marginalized groups overcome obstacles and gain more access to political and economic institutions.

From his Kensington row home, McKinney, who holds a Ph.D. in anthropology from Temple University, spoke candidly about what's facing Black and Latino boys in Kensington. Here are highlights from a two-hour interview in which he discussed the crisis and strategies for attacking it.

Notebook: Dr. McKinney, what are the causes and consequences of the dropout problem in Kensington?

McKinney: There are a million causes, starting with the environment. If we walked outside my house, it's a block and a half to Elkin Elementary School, so for kids who live here, to get to that school they have to pass four drug spots. That's literally every 50 feet. Now, when kids want to go to the library that's across the street [from McKinney's house] they have to walk through people sitting on the steps of the library injecting heroin. When you look at the context of what is here – a neighborhood with one of the highest unemployment and murder rates in the city, and the highest rate of young people having contact with the police, this is the starting point [for them]. So we have to deal with those things if we want them to deal with school.

When you get into school you have another set of issues – the newest teachers, the teachers least prepared to deal with this population, incredible amounts of turnover, and staff that might not be reflective of the student body.

[As for consequences] take something like Act 24. [This act amended the state school code to permanently bar any person convicted of most felonies, including those that are drug-related, from working for the school system, and requires new background checks for current employees to certify they've never been arrested or convicted for certain crimes.] While it was created to protect our children, it also created an unintended consequence where a whole set of people – largely minorities – are not going to be allowed to work for one of the largest employers in the city. So, if a young person in this community picks up a record, they ask themselves, "What's my inspiration to stay in school because nobody is going to ever hire me."

Notebook: Edwin Desamour, co-founder of MIMIC, once said that "Kids go to school with two huge bags on their backs. One is filled with books. The other is an invisible one, carrying problems." Is that an accurate assessment of what's driving the dropout rate among Black and Latino males in Kensington?

McKinney: I absolutely agree with him. Kids are bringing in that backpack the fact that they didn't have breakfast, don't have heat in the house, that there was a domestic abuse situation that night, and that many of them, especially boys, are sexually abused. The list goes on. And then we expect them to show up at school and be ready to perform. There are a ton of barriers to staying in school in that backpack. Sometimes we try and skip over that stuff to deal with situations, and you have to deal with it all.

Notebook: What impact does "labeling" have, and the low expectations that are often placed on Black and Latino males?

McKinney: There are a lot of labels they are carrying around – "dropout," "at risk," "disabled," "criminal." There is nothing worse than when I hear young people say, "I can't do that because I am this." Someone will say I can't do well in this situation because I'm disabled and they don't even know what that means. They will just use the term. What it does is set up this scenario of what it is that they can't accomplish. Their understanding of the possibilities of this world are these blocks.

So I tell them, despite what their personal situations might be, you can do whatever you want. When Jesse Jackson was running for president, he would say "I am somebody," and that's exactly what these young people need to hear because they start appreciating it and start appreciating being challenged.

Notebook: Several organizations have been established to improve achievement for Black and Latino boys. Still, the statistics remain grim. Is there some sort of disconnect between these groups and the students?

  • mckinney and jerry

McKinney: There is a disconnect in terms of people really understanding the situation and feeling a sense of immediacy and urgency about it. I'm not saying that everyone has to be in that grind every day, but folks that are serving are sometimes so distant from the actual problem. If every day you walk out your door and have to step over a body, eventually you're going to deal with that body being there and try to prevent that from happening. But if you never have to see that, there's a different way that you deal with it.

It's like academics. We sit in a space and come up with grand theories. But whether things change or don't, it doesn't really impact our lives. Our lives remain good. The same goes for a lot of these organizations. While things continue to decline, a lot of the people who run those organizations, their lives are great. So what's the real push to change? There isn't one.

Notebook: The African American and Latino Male Dropout Taskforce was set up to address this crisis. What has become of its work?

McKinney: Because there is so much disarray within the District, it has been very difficult getting things moving again. The meetings are starting up again, and it's sort of being reconstituted. What was really good about the taskforce is that it constituted a group of people who normally weren't at the table. I commend Mr. [Robert] Archie and Mr. [Johnny] Irizarry for doing that because you got solutions and voices outside of the box. The suggestions aren't the most groundbreaking suggestions, but the fact that they were able to get a report together and get those people at the table was something that we hadn't seen done a lot.

We don't know what the impact of the taskforce will be until implementation really takes place. I don't know if the real support is there and if folks are going to dig in the way that Mr. Archie and Mr. Irizarry did, but I'm hopeful.

Notebook: What other organizations have you found to be making a difference?

McKinney: MIMIC is strong in having contact with folks who have a past and have gotten themselves together. They bring these men in to share their stories with the young men. That makes an impact on young people's lives because mentors in MIMIC are able to say to them that even if you run into barriers, you can keep going. We can stumble, but we don't have to fall.

No one has done a better job of making public what's going on with zero tolerance or pushouts than [Youth United for Change]. We need to make sure that young people's voices are a part of their futures. YUC has done a good job of that. I also commend the old SRC, because they had YUC representatives on the taskforce, and that was really important.

Notebook: What are some solutions to the dropout crisis?

McKinney: We need an emphasis on project-based and interactive learning, and really hearing from young people about what they are interested in – and build things appropriately. We need to create more space for innovation within the schools.

Schools, every teacher, and every parent need to be better aware of all the indicators we have.

We know who some of the at-risk young people are, so we need to help other people become more aware and have exact solutions to deal with it.

There are so many people doing dropout efforts, but we need to create different and less competitive coalitions.

And we need to address the context. Poverty, homelessness, and having to walk by people shooting drugs make a difference in your life.
A lot of people are saying, "It's just them." I hear this from police and city agency folks, but they would never say that about their own kids. The context is what these kids are dealing with.

So where in all this are they supposed to go to school? It is amazing to me when they just get through. I commend them and celebrate them, but I also know that they are capable of so much more, and I want to be there for that. There's a lot of other people that want to be there for that.

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Wendy Harris

Wendy is the managing editor at the Notebook. She has worked at Black Enterprise magazine as a staff editor and contributing writer, and is the author of two books.

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