Donnell White believes the best way to solve the achievement gap among young men-young black men, in particular-is to encourage them to become leaders in their own education.
The Michele Clark High School teacher recently won the Golden Apple award that recognizes excellence in the classroom.
White says that school districts across the country, including in Chicago, have missed what’s obvious. His solution is Proud Young Men, which he launched this year at Michele Clark Preparatory High School, 5101 W. Harrison.
Quick to point out that Proud Young Men isn’t traditional tutoring or mentoring, White calls his idea of encouraging self-reliance and self-empowerment positive peer pressure.
The program is for sixth and seventh graders at Clark, which has Hispanic students but a mostly black student population. White, who teaches seventh and eighth grade math, says he wants to reach boys as early as possible.
He began working on the program two years ago. One of the ways it encourages self-reliance is by having boys assume leadership roles in the classroom.
“‘Proud Young Men’ goes in a different direction by putting the onus on the kids to be more self-empowered,” White said. “When they’re in my room, they have leadership positions. There’s one boy who’s in charge of the chalkboard … Another young man is in charge of the computer. Another young man is leading the lesson.
“They rotate leadership and they learn to lean on each other. I sit back and … just encourage them.”
White says he’s already seen improvement in his male students’ grades; many going from F’s and D’s to C’s and better.
“It’s a nationwide thing that boys are lagging academically,” he said. “It’s not just an ethnic thing. It crosses cultures.
“It’s the African-American male achievement gap-not just the African-American achievement gap-that’s been ongoing for so long without real, tangible solutions that it begs for someone to come up with something different.”
White grew up in Austin, attending May Elementary School across the street from Clark, before attending High School at Proviso East High School in Maywood. He says school districts have had trouble honestly identifying the gap. Before becoming a teacher in 2002, White was a postal worker living and raising his kids in Oak Park. White still lives in Oak Park and said the high school and elementary school districts there have been struggling with an academic achievement gap between black and white students for years.
“The problem that Oak Park is having is they don’t know how to label what’s happening. And as soon as you label it racially, there’s a problem, because Oak Park-with all its liberalness-is still not comfortable dealing with things in that direction,” he said.