“I teach 75 students. Five of them are young black men. By the end of the semester, there will probably be three of them.”
Turiya S.A. Raheem, an adjunct professor of English at Atlantic Cape Community College, admitted defeat in advance, despite what she expects will be her best efforts to retain those students who belong to the demographic with the lowest college graduation rate of any race and gender.
“This is upsetting to me because of the way we grew up here,” she said of the Northside, the predominantly black Atlantic City neighborhood she wrote about in her book “Growing up in the Other Atlantic City: Wash’s and the Northside.”
Author Nelson Johnson also titled his history of African Americans in the resort after that section of the city.
The Northside no longer exists as a neighborhood, and its ideology and ability to retain leaders has diminished as well, some people said during a forum last week on the future of the black community in southern New Jersey.
Raheem, Johnson, Mayor Lorenzo Langford, former Atlantic City Councilwoman Rosalind Norrell-Nance, and Greenidge Funeral Home owner and educator Carolyn Greenidge led the forum that drew more than 150 residents, activists and public officials to the city’s Uptown Complex School. The planned two-hour discussion lasted nearly three hours as people in the audience lined up to voice concerns, particularly that educational, professional and economic-achievement gaps persist.
But people also offered words of optimism and encouragement, and broached solutions. Some of those ideas seemed to require a widescale commitment from various corners of the community. Others hinged on a seemingly simple reminder of and recommitment to diligence, reciprocity and values Raheem and others link to the Northside neighborhood as they remember it.
“Where’s our generation?” Raheem, 55, asked attendees at the forum. “The seniors in Atlantic City are always out in full force. They have concerns, they have the vision sometimes, but they’re tired. They want to enjoy their golden years, but they’re more active than the teenagers and young adults and those of us in midlife. What are we doing?”
Set an example
The older generation that Raheem spoke of witnessed desegregation and the civil-rights era, which brought voting rights and other changes to the black community, such as the disappearance of black residential enclaves. In Atlantic City and elsewhere, those neighborhoods had generated the most storied black leaders.
Today, role models of that caliber are comparatively rare in black communities, said Patricia Reid-Merritt, a professor of social work and African-American studies at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.
Reid-Merritt, Raheem, Greenidge and others say providing black role models in the classroom could keep young black men in school. A disproportionately large percentage of young black men end up incarcerated, unemployed and less educated, data from the U.S. Census Bureau and other agencies consistently show.
Higher teacher salaries, private-sector organizations such as the Police Athletic League, or informal mentoring within the community may help, too, panelists said.
“PAL isn’t enough, Boys and Girls Club isn’t enough, once you get to age 9. It isn’t enough to keep 13-, 14-year-olds out of the streets,” said Atlantic City native Atiyah Raheem, a 23-year-old who attended the forum. She is not related to Turiya S.A. Raheem.
Teacher Pamela York suggested expanding community arts programs through Dante Hall and other venues that she said are underutilized.
“Funding has to become a priority for arts for youth. Buildings are available, instructors are available, and youth with talent and potential are very available,” she said.
When it comes to expanding or launching such initiatives, the government could stand to get out of its own way, too, some forum attendees said.
Jerry King Jr. and others at the forum accused public officials of letting nepotism and political favoritism obstruct their attempts to innovate and share knowledge and resources that would benefit children in the community.
King, who grew up in Atlantic City and lives in Pleasantville, has received attention from national media outlets for his book about debt management, identity-theft protection and other credit-score-maximizing factors. He wanted to start a program that would combine his financial background with his experience working with troubled youth in Washington, D.C., where he lived after attending Seton Hall University and serving in the military.
His attempts to help his hometown were thwarted, he said.
“We’re talking about solutions and why some black men are frustrated and why we don’t have amenities and support,” he said. “A lot of times if you’re not in a clique, politically connected and you can’t slide an envelope full of money across the table, you get nothing. I meet with (public officials), and nothing happens. It’s frustrating to me because I walk around with a million dollars’ worth of information in me.”
The local political system is broken, he said.
“Government by the people has gone out the window,” he said. “If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always have what we have right now. Can we take some actions to get the results we want?”
Plug the brain drain
Removing such barriers would likely ease the frustration that decreases the likelihood of an area retaining leaders such as King. The expansion of professional opportunities that offer career trajectories and greater availability of safe, vibrant places to live would also help, said leaders including Richard Smith, president of the Greater Vineland Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
In Atlantic City, clients at the Boys and Girls Club recognize college is the key to better lives but often do not recognize how school performance and other activities will affect their chances of getting there, said Braxton Plummer, the agency’s executive director.
In the resort and neighboring municipalities, there are growing career options.
More training opportunities will become available for the medical field when Atlantic Cape completes the planned expansion of its Atlantic City campus.
And this fall, the Next Generation Aviation Research and Technology Park in Egg Harbor Township will open the first of seven segments of the facility scheduled to be fully operational by 2015.
Ultimately, the park is expected to employ about 2,000 people and generate related commercial, academic and research ventures in the surrounding area. Many NextGen jobs offer high salaries and career paths but require different training and more education. The starting salary for jobs at the park is estimated to be $95,000, the director of the South Jersey Economic Development District that is handling the project, Gordon Dahl, has said previously.
Lend a hand
Acquiring the required education or training is not possible for everyone. In some cases, the need is more immediate or basic: a job and paycheck. People have looked to Atlantic City for the low-skill service jobs plentiful in the hospitality industry.
That included the parents of Steve Gunter, a 43-year-old who was born in Atlantic City and has lived there most of his life. They worked at the hotels and restaurants while raising 13 children.
“And we had some good Christmases,” he said with a smile. “We didn’t want for anything.”
Providing for such a large family on salaries typical of those jobs could not happen now, Gunter said.
But the black community has not benefited from casino development as fully as other demographic groups and their neighborhoods, some attendees at the forum said.
In an attempt to connect more city residents with casino work, local executives created the Atlantic City Jobs and Opportunities Program in 2003. Headed by Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, the program exceeded its goal to train and place 2,000 city residents in jobs. By 2007, 2,264 found employment through the program, said Dave Coskey, vice president of marketing for Borgata.
Such initiatives do not address all obstacles, however, such as criminal history.
The ability to secure work is complicated by the legacy of incarceration among black men, Reid-Merritt said.
“There’s a high unemployment rate for African-American men. How can they be in a position to be good husbands with good jobs when they’re in jail?” Reid-Merritt said.
Gunter found his job at Kut Kreator butcher shop on South Carolina Avenue in Atlantic City through the Atlantic County Supported Work Program, which helps ex-offenders, recovering addicts, school dropouts and others overcome “significant barriers to private-sector employment” by finding willing employers and paying their wages, its website states.
In February 2009, Gunter carried his unregistered gun to his job making sandwiches at Stockton College in Galloway Township. While he was on the kitchen line, someone found the weapon in the pocket of the coat he had left hanging in a back office.
He served 11 months for illegal handgun possession. Gunter said the firearm was for protection because he lives in Brigantine Homes, a housing project in the notoriously rough Back Maryland neighborhood of Atlantic City.
Gunter said he knew he was breaking the law and that it was common in his neighborhood. In urban areas, the offense is as prevalent as drinking and driving in the suburbs, he said.
Reid-Merritt and others identified education as the top priority for addressing the continued tendency for black Americans to be hit harder by circumstances such as the recession than the general population.
“People give lip service to the kind of supports we offer, but obviously something is wrong and something is missing,” Reid-Merritt said. “Education focuses on so many other things: quality of family life in the black community, household composition.”
Many factors — quality of home life, for example — influence educational outcomes and vice versa, so, in theory, focusing reform efforts there would yield rippling results.
“If a child does great in school but goes home to parents playing cards and doing drugs all day, I’m not sure what the future is for our little city,” Raheem said. “It’s gotten to be so complex that sometimes people feel overwhelmed. You’ll want to come at that from all perspectives. But how many times do you see a representative from all the different entities — politics, education, social work — sitting down at the table? You almost need an IEP (individualized education program) for each child. That’s massive.”
Within the school building, early and consistent intervention, extracurricular programs and maintaining a welcoming, stimulating school environment lays the foundation for success for students, said Reid-Merritt and others, including Woodbine Elementary School Superintendent Lynda Anderson-Towns.
New Jersey public schools already have full-day prekindergarten programs. Anderson-Towns expects that to yield dramatic, discernible improvement in years to come, particularly among black and Hispanic students.
“It absolutely does give those children who do not have the same experiential background as others do a huge advantage,” she said. “It starts children who are sometimes at risk with a very good building block for education, a strong foundation in reading and math and social skills as well. With minority youth, it’s not enough to give them that strong beginning, you have to continually revisit at the middle school level, to keep that gap from reappearing, you have to intervene there as well.”
Anderson-Towns credits such consistent intervention efforts with “amazing” schoolwide math-score improvements she hopes to replicate this year.
Woodbine Elementary students scored at least 25 percent higher on the math portion of the New Jersey Assessment of Skills and Knowledge during the 2009-10 school year than the year before, including the African-American subgroup that has underperformed consistently over the years and throughout the state. Gov. Chris Christie, educational scholars and others have repeatedly voiced concerns about the trend.
The school’s population of just 220 students allows for flexibility that often eludes larger districts, but a large student body would not hinder a school from trying similar strategies, Anderson-Towns said. More students means more money to spend on the different groups, if a school prioritizes it, she said.
“They can always change their time, they can always do an afterschool program,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what size you are.”
Anderson-Towns extended math classes by 30 minutes by taking time from science and social studies sessions. The time lost in those two areas was made up by incorporating the subject matter into reading courses.
She also met quarterly with teachers and supervisors to analyze test scores from classes and instituted a daily, hourlong after-school homework club.
Parental involvement is a paramount factor in scholastic success that schools have little control over but could improve by sharing the unsettling statistics demonstrating that black students score lowest of all racial groups, she said.
“Just sharing that with teachers and parents, to say, ‘I think we can do better,’ and I think we need to look hard for ways to reach them,” she said. “As soon as you (do that), you’re able to intervene and bring them up to where they’re supposed to be.”
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