Years ago, my wife and I traveled with several volunteers to take a large group of African-American and Latino students on a trip to train them on the importance of leadership and to develop personal, interpersonal and communication skills for minority students.
One group joined us from the town of Perth Amboy, N.J. The first words that came out of my mouth when I saw them were, “We are in for a long weekend working with this group.” I probably surprised my coworkers and volunteers; after all, I had been working with youth from the inner city for years. Still, I couldn’t stop from judging these kids based upon the way they were dressed, the way they walked and the way they communicated.
The next day I joined several students in playing a game of basketball. I ended up getting injured and found myself on the ground, immobile and in incredible pain. Many of the students simply stared at me, unsure what to do. However, the students from Perth Amboy ran over to me, lifted me up and ran me to the infirmary. They stayed with me while I was looked at and were even determined to go all the way to the hospital with me. In all my years of working with youth, I can say that these students were by far the most compassionate young people I had ever met.
Read the whole book, not just the cover
This experience became the catalyst for my “No Excuses” mindset. Many of us recite the cliché, “Never judge a book by its cover.” Too few of us recite or even remember the rest — that you still have to read the book! By accepting this paradigm, and allowing it to shape classroom expectations, educators are missing an opportunity to close the achievement gap and many other challenges associated with educating minority youth.
Minority kids not only have ambitions and dreams just like other students, but they are also motivated to achieve their dreams by people who relate to them on a personal level. In our HYPE (Helping Youth Pursue Excellence) program, my team and I have interacted with thousands of minority and at-risk youth. We have engaged in conversations with an increasing number of minority students who have big dreams to go to college and achieve life success. By gaining an understanding of the world in which they live, you begin to uncover some of the societal and interpersonal challenges minority students face. This should be a top priority of any educator. After achieving this understanding, you can finally identify what can be done to reverse the tide of academic failure.
A challenge by any other name is still a challenge
Kids from challenged backgrounds or from urban communities have a myriad of burdens that hinder their ability to effectively communicate their dreams. These challenges are no excuse for failure; however, they do point to areas of concern that successful educators understand and analyze. These educators have made it their goals to help these students navigate challenges in order to succeed in the classroom. Common problems students face are:
• Oppositional identity: A term created by the late Dr. John Ogbu, it explains how several minorities have created a “counter culture” to the majority culture of the population. This reaction is due to years of limited opportunities and denial of assimilation into the American system. The eventual result of this development is that individuals are often considered “sell-outs” if they go against the identity of their culture.
• Cultural Sensitivity: Many minorities do not see any significance in the American school system, because they do not see people like themselves succeeding in it. In addition, different styles of communication are not often valued in the classroom. After being raised in vivacious cultures, how can we expect minority students to learn while sitting in a room hearing lectures that are monotone in nature? Students struggle to learn in this setting when their culture learns and interacts in such a different, high-energy way.
Moving from challenges to motivation
Kids are not committed to programs, kids are committed to people — this philosophy is a career motto of mine. I have witnessed over and over again that minority students do not care what your skin color is — if you care about them, they will respond to you. To illustrate the understated importance of this simple concept, I want to share with you examples of districts that implemented innovative strategies to connect with their students of color and helping them achieve post-secondary success.
1. Gadsden County School District, Gadsden County, Fla.: When incoming Superintendent Reginald James arrived for his first day at Gadsden County, the school district was ranked in the lower percentiles of both student scores on the FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test) as well as schools reaching AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) goals. James recognized the problem and implemented a “No-Excuses” school-wide philosophy that included significant input from the students themselves.
In just one calendar school year, GCSD had the second highest increase in the state of Florida on FCAT scores and all of their schools achieved AYP. They recognized that educators should simultaneously build student academic outcomes into their relationship- building initiatives. They also knew to engage key community stakeholders such as community groups and churches to become role models and supporters for the “No-Excuses” philosophy. Finally, they found that accountability across the board from classroom teachers to school administrators, as well as parents and students themselves improved their success.
2. Hearne High School, Hearne, Texas: After one of my presentations for the Southwest Center for Accelerated Schools Conference in Austin, Texas, I shared with the Hearne group that students should be taught to identify their life’s passion and develop a strategy to achieve it. After they implemented this strategey, Hearne took it to the next level by posting the dreams of their students all over the school. I saw for myself a building of motivated students who came face to face with their future dreams and ambitions every day. Hearne High also had the students create twenty-year timelines of their future achievements. Hearne’s experience depicts what can happen when schools encourage and support the dreams of students and connect these dreams back to their educational experience.
3. Lincoln College Prep High School, Kansas City, Mo.: At the beginning of a new school year, Lincoln High School principal Regina Ellis recognized the need for some type of objective the staff and students could embrace. Her administration chose the amount of scholarships won by their students as the goal to shoot for which they shared with students, parents and community and other stakeholders. Their first year’s goal was to achieve more than $5 million in scholarships. They not only achieved this goal, but they superseded it by several hundred thousand dollars. The next year they set the bar higher and currently, they have achieved more than $6.5 million in scholarships.
They were able to achieve success for several reasons. First, administration recognized that the school needed to have a definable goal for the students and staff to be shooting for. Second, their students were taught to reach beyond any self-perceived limitation. Third, goals that are established were analyzed and discussed frequently. Finally, educators understood that when you connect goals to academic achievement, academic achievement becomes a quest instead of a routine.
Let me emphasize again that kids are not committed to programs, kids are committed to people. Caring educators and administrators see the potential in their minority students. Allow this vision to be the driving force behind their expectation of success!
Darrell “Coach D” Andrews has been a keynote speaker, trainer and consultant for schools and non-profit organizations throughout the country. He is the author of the nationally acclaimed book, “Believing the HYPE — Seven Keys to Motivating Students of Color.” Visit his website: .