By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
On a recent Tuesday night, community organizer Kevin Mondy stood before a group of parents and teenagers at the Thurgood Marshall Recreation Center in South Oak Cliff to deliver some sobering news. Black males were dropping out of the Dallas Independent School District at an alarming rate, he said, and no one seemed to know what to do about it.
"My theory is that the achievement gap never closes because one group is not going to stop while the other group catches up," he said. "So as a community we can't rely on the district to solve this problem alone, we've got to do our part as a community."
Mondy went through a slide presentation that told the story. In the last two years, he said, 55 percent of black males had dropped out of DISD. Of the 28 high schools in the district, which have an enrollment that ranges from 383 students to more than 5,000, only 1,145 black males have graduated in the last year.
"Our numbers show you may have 2,600 enter the ninth grade, well, realistically you should have that many graduating in four years," Mondy said. "And we're seeing half that."
Closing the achievement gap, whether between rich and poor or black and white, has long bedeviled DISD, as it has most every other urban school district. But Mondy thinks he has an answer.
In the next year, Mondy hopes to launch a program called Project Manhood, which seeks to improve academic performance among black boys in the sixth and seventh grades. The initiative has been used in other cities for more than a decade, but it is the first of its kind in Dallas.
"I don't think people see the crisis that's going on in our community, in terms of education," Mondy says. "We've got to be willing to think outside the box."
Mondy is the founder of the Dallas-based nonprofit Still I Rise, which is dedicated to youth mentoring and education programs that stress community service and leadership. Mondy is himself a product of DISD schools. As a high school student he was bused across town to W.T. White as part of a program to integrate Dallas schools. The bus ride would take more than an hour, but Mondy says it was worth it because it exposed him to a world and a culture he might otherwise not have seen.
His goals for Project Manhood are the same. The program is based on a curriculum developed by Sheldon Nix, a Princeton-educated former college psychologist who now works as a pastor and as a consultant to nonprofits around the country, focusing specifically on social service programs for youth and families.
The program is designed to take place three Saturdays a month on the campus of one of the schools in the Dallas County Community College District. On the first two Saturdays the students will take math and English courses, two areas where Mondy says black boys in DISD are not testing well, and on the third Saturday business leaders will visit the campus to speak with the students.
"The idea is to create a college-type atmosphere, to expose these kids to new things, so they know that their world is not just their neighborhood. We want them to think, 'Man, I can go to college too.'"
According to Mondy's research, discipline problems among black males at DISD begin in the sixth grade and continue to escalate until the first year of high school, when dropping out becomes an option. Mondy's not sure what all the answers are, but he thinks part of the problem is that many of these youths lack good male role models. At the meeting where Mondy presented the program earlier this month he asked for volunteers who could be on campus once the program gets started to help with supervision and tutoring.
"If we can get our kids past the ninth grade, there's a better chance they'll graduate," Mondy told the crowd. Last week, Mondy hosted his first orientation meeting, which drew about 20 parents. He plans to cap enrollment at 40 students for the program, which will cost about $47,000 a year to operate. Some of that money—which will go toward tutors' salaries—has already been donated; Mondy hopes the rest comes from grants and corporate donors.
"What we're looking for are kids who really want to improve," he said.
In the end, improving graduation rates is only part of Mondy's goal. Ultimately, he hopes graduates of his program will end up in the city's magnet schools and eventually do what he has done—return to the community after college and make it better.
"I think as a community we've got to start looking at these things globally," he said. "We've got to be willing to think outside the box and try new things. Otherwise, the cycle will just repeat itself."