Where are the African American male schoolteachers and administrators?
It has been pretty obvious for years that if you really want to do something about high rates of truancy and suspensions among black students - to cap that "school-to-prison pipeline" - put more black men in classrooms and principals' offices.
Bakari Ali Haynes is a case in point. He's an assistant principal at Eastern Middle School in Silver Spring, Md. Seven years ago, he started an after-school group for African American and Hispanic boys called Gentlemen of Distinction. The boys are eager to spend extra time with Haynes, who is for many the first black male authority figure they've met.
"When they come into my office, two things get their attention right away - my academic certificates and photographs of my family," said Haynes, 36. "They won't come right out and ask how you get those things, but you know that's what they want, and it's my job to show them what it takes to get it."
That's the kind of insight that helps keep a student in school. It's not that other teachers can't be effective, but when students can see themselves in their teachers and vice versa, it makes a difference. Some studies have even found that the test scores of black male students increase when they are taught by black men.
"When you have a well-prepared African American man teaching black boys, the impact can be phenomenal," said Brenda Townsend Walker, a lawyer and a professor of special education at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Fla. "I have interviewed African American male students who had pretty much written school off, whose teachers had given up on them, but whose lives were turned around when they got into a class with African American men. Generally speaking, they just have a better ability to relate to the students and mediate situations that others couldn't handle."
In Montgomery County, Md., where Haynes works, there are 148,000 students enrolled in public schools. About 21 percent of the students, or 31,000, are black. And yet there are only 282 African American male teachers, 38 assistant principals and 19 principals, according to school officials.
In 2010, 71 percent of students suspended for "insubordination" were black.
Haynes knows there are better ways to handle disruptive students.
"As much as they may curse you out or say they hate your guts, at the end of the day, what they are looking for is someone who understands, someone who can say: 'I've been where you are. This is how we'll deal with it,'" Haynes said. "Sometimes they act out simply because they are hungry but don't want to tell anyone."
In the District of Columbia, where there are about 76,000 public school students, the suspension rate is low - less than one per 10,000 students. But the truancy rate is among the highest in the region - about 20 percent. Out of 4,000 teachers in D.C. public schools, only about 400 are black men.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, black men make up 2 percent of the nation's 4.8 million teachers. And black men make up only 1 percent of those currently enrolled in teacher development programs.
Why the lack of interest? Low teacher pay? It can't be just that, or else there wouldn't be any teachers.
Haynes grew up in a household of educators. His grandfather was a professor at Southern University in Baton Rouge. His father, Leonard Haynes, was president of Grambling University in Grambling, La., and later headed up a White House initiative to strengthen historically black colleges and universities.
His mother, Mary Haynes, teaches at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.
When I first met Haynes in 2004, he was teaching English to ninth-graders at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring. The black boys in his class weren't just well behaved, they were enthusiastic - raising hands to answer questions, participating in discussions, helping one another in small groups and seeking him out during the school day for advice on personal matters.
As an assistant principal at Eastern, he engages students as if the school were just one big homeroom class.
"I've always wanted to be an educator," he said. "It was like a calling."
Hopefully, one day soon, more black men will hear it as well.
Courtland Milloy writes for the Washington Post.