Education

Why We Need to Do More for Our Young People of Color

They are our future, but they face powerful challenges. Helping them will build opportunity for all of us, and the schools are key.
by | December 5, 2013
 

I have the great privilege of living in California, where it's often said that we see the future first. And in the Golden State, it's becoming quite clear that our future is in color. More than 70 percent of Californians under the age of 25 identify as people of color, according to the latest census. Across the United States, the majority of our youth will be people of color before 2020.

From these numbers, we see that our future is inseparable from the future of young people of color. And I take this analysis a step further: We know that boys of color have many of the worst outcomes in terms of health, education and employment. It's easy to lose hope when we look at the barriers facing boys of color.

One example is national data analyzed by UCLA that spotlights how harsh school discipline pushes hundreds of thousands of young people out of school and off track as early as kindergarten. The report found significant disparities in suspension rates among students. For example, more than one in four black males was suspended from middle school or high school, compared to 11 percent of white males. Even more sobering is that only about 55 percent of Latino boys and 54 percent of African-American boys graduated from high school in 2007.

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But we can't lose hope, because we can't afford to let this continue. The course to health and prosperity for all of us starts with changing the odds for our boys and young men of color. And there are real signs of hope and momentum building around the country: President Obama soon will introduce the Presidential Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for African Americans. This spring, the California Endowment joined 25 of the nation's leading philanthropic organizations to pledge to work together to address issues facing boys and young men of color. And California state legislators led by a select Assembly committee are focused on measures that include improving health access, advancing common-sense school discipline and increasing graduation rates.

The schools are where much remains to be done. California suspends more students than it sends to college each year, according to the state Department of Education. The decision to suspend a student represents a high-stakes moment in the life of a young person. Research shows that even one suspension doubles a student's likelihood of dropping out and triples his chance of becoming involved in the juvenile justice system.

This doesn't bode well for our future, and there is a better way. Schools in California and across the nation have started to use proven approaches to school discipline that keep kids in school while holding them accountable for their actions.

Outside of school, our young people experience high levels of violence and toxic stress in their communities. Two of three children are exposed to violence every year. Exposure to childhood trauma is the leading predictor of school misbehavior and the second leading predictor of academic failure. But counseling services have been shown to help kids process their feelings and behave better in school.

Trauma-informed approaches also have been incorporated into the implementation of health-care reform, which has the potential to greatly enhance the health of boys and young men of color. Under the Affordable Care Act, young men will be able to join a health system that is more accessible, more cost-effective and more focused on keeping them well. Health care reform also incorporates mental-health and substance-abuse treatment services for the first time.

These are just a few solutions that are bettering the lives of our boys and young men of color and, in the course of it, for all of us. All young people should have access to the tools and resources they need to grow up healthy and happy. That is the promise of America, and it is the America that will put us on a path to health and prosperity.

To read a column by Robert K. Ross on this topic that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, click here.

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