Maine isn’t a state that you’d think would have much to offer a brother.
Its winters are bitter cold. There’s no hip, urban-style nightlife to be found. And with 94 percent of the population being white – next to Vermont it’s the nation’s whitest state – I imagine many black visitors there would feel like they fell asleep and woke up as an extra in the film, “Napoleon Dynamite.”
But apparently, Maine is tops in giving black males the one thing they will need to be successful no matter where they wind up living – that thing being a high school diploma.
According to The Schott Foundation for Public Education’s recently-released report, “The Urgency of Now: The Schott 50 State Report on Black Males and Public Education,” 97 percent of the black males who attend school in The Pine Tree State actually graduate.
That makes Maine number one among the states for black male graduation rates. New York, with a 37 percent graduation rate for black males, is dead last.
Theories abound as to why Maine graduates most of its black males on time – especially since it is a poor state and blacks there tend to be even poorer than whites.
The explanation that makes the most sense to me, however, is the one offered by Dropout Nation: Because Maine enrolls few black males – only 2,078 were enrolled in 2009-2010 – there just aren’t enough of them to concentrate into inferior schools.
That may mean they are held to the same expectations as their white peers, and not herded into schools where they are expected to fail. And what it all shows is that, even amid poverty, young black males can achieve.
But what’s happening in Maine isn’t happening for black boys everywhere.
The Schott report found that nationally, only 52 percent of black male ninth graders and only 58 percent of Latino male ninth graders graduate from high school in four years – compared to 78 percent of white males.
That’s an improvement of 10 percentage points since 2001-2002. In fact, 2011 was the first year ever that more than half of black male ninth-graders graduated with a regular diploma in four years.
I don’t know whether to cheer or cry about that.
But here’s something that is definitely worth a few tears: That progress has only closed the graduation gap between black males and white males by only three percentage points.
At this rate, according to Schott, it would take 50 years for black males to graduate at the same rate as their white counterparts.
Fifty years. Half a century.
We’ve got to do better than this.
The reasons given in the report for the struggles of black males to simply graduate high school on time – in an era in which they’re ultimately going to need more than a high school diploma to have any hope to make a livable wage and to avoid being a source of income for private prison profiteers – are reasons that most of us are familiar with.
They’re suspended from school in disproportionate numbers. Many begin school without having been exposed to pre-kindergarten education, and the overemphasis on standardized testing makes many of them feel so much like failures that they see no need to continue.
They also tend to be cut off from schools that have the best teachers, and that can provide them with the educational exposure and resources they need to succeed.
The report calls for reforms such as alternatives to school suspensions, and “personal education plans,” which customize academic, social and health support for at-risk students.
Still, I think Maine holds a lesson here.
First of all, the fact that 97 percent of them graduate from high school on time in that state puts to rest any stereotypes about black males not having the desire to learn, or that they can’t succeed in school.
Also in Maine, chances are many of the black boys who attend school there aren’t exposed to a culture that teaches them that learning is only for white people, or, by not being concentrated in segregated schools or classes, they simply live up to whatever standard is laid out for them.
Now I’m certainly not suggesting that any family who wants their black sons to graduate from high school pack up and head to Maine – as the culture shock could inspire more rebellion than learning.
What I am suggesting, though, is that as we seek ways to improve the still dismal graduation rates of black males nationally, we don’t ignore the role that expectations and building a culture of meeting high, or even standard, expectations, plays in all this.
The future, after all, depends on it.
Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning columnist who is based in Jacksonville, Fla. Follow her at tonyaajw@twitter. Or visit her webpage and blog, “Tonyaa’s Take,” at www.tonyaajweathersbee.com.