We know what works to help black children – so let's do it

This will be the last What Works column.

I reserve the right to report occasionally on any program I run across that shows results in saving the lives and futures of African American kids. But this is the last in the series I started 19 months ago to spotlight such programs.

Let me begin by thanking you for your overwhelming response to my request for nominations, and to thank everyone from every program who allowed me to peek behind the scenes.

From the Harlem Children's Zone in New York to SEI (Self-Enhancement Inc.) in Portland, Ore., I have been privileged and uplifted to see dedicated people doing amazing work.

Common denominators

I am often asked whether I've found common denominators in all these successful programs, anything we can use in helping kids at risk. The short answer is, yes. You want to know what works?

Longer school days and longer school years work.

Giving principals the power to hire good teachers and fire bad ones works.

High expectations work.

Giving a teacher freedom to hug a child who needs hugging works.

Parental involvement works.

Counseling for troubled students and families works.

Consistency of effort works.

Incentives work.

Field trips that expose kids to possibilities you can't see from their broken neighborhoods, work.

Indeed, the most important thing I've learned is that none of this is rocket science. We already know what works. What we lack is the will to do it.

Instead, we have a hit-and-miss patchwork of programs achieving stellar results out on the fringes of the larger, failing, system. Why are they the exception and not the rule?

If we know what works, why don't we simply do it?

Nineteen months ago when I started, I asked Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children's Zone why anyone should pay to help him help poor kids in crumbling neighborhoods. He told me, “Someone's yelling at me because I'm spending $3,500 a year on ‘Alfred.' Alfred is 8. OK, Alfred turns 18. No one thinks anything about locking him up for 10 years at $60,000 a year.”


Investment now pays off

Forget the notion of a moral obligation to uplift failing children. Consider the math instead.

If that investment of $3,500 per annum creates a functioning adult who pays taxes and otherwise contributes to the system, why would we pass that up in favor of creating, 10 years later, an adult who drains the system to the tune of $60,000 a year for his incarceration alone, to say nothing of the other costs he foists upon society?

How does that make sense? Nineteen months later, I have yet to find a good answer.

Instead, I find passivity. “Save The Children,” Marvin Gaye exhorted 27 years ago. But we are losing the children in obscene numbers. Losing them to jails, losing them to graves, losing them to illiteracy, teen parenthood, and other dead-ends and cul-de-sacs of life.

But I have yet to hear America – or even African Americans – scream about it.

Does no one else see a crisis here?

Where's the urgency?

“I don't think that in America, especially in black America, we can arrest this problem unless we understand the urgency of it,” says Tony Hopson Sr., founder of SEI.

“When I say urgency, I'm talking 9-11 urgency, I'm talking Hurricane Katrina urgency, things that stop a nation. I don't think in black America this is urgent enough.

“Kids are dying every single day. I don't see where the NAACP, the Urban League, the Black Caucus, have decided that the fact that black boys are being locked up at alarming rates means we need to stop the nation and have a discussion about how we're going to eradicate that as a problem.

“It has not become urgent enough. If black America doesn't see it as urgent enough, how dare we think white America is going to think it's urgent enough?”

In other words, stand up. Get angry. Stop accepting what is clearly unacceptable. I'll bet you that works, too.