At a school in Chicago, about 30 black boys will soon attend special weekly classes intended to build their self-esteem, provide them with male role models and teach them about African history.
In Milwaukee next fall, the public school system will undertake a controversial experiment by opening an elementary and middle school geared specifically toward nurturing and educating black males.In Washington, D.C., a group of black men have adopted a public school and become surrogate fathers to boys growing up in poor neighborhoods and single-parent homes.
These are some of the new and creative responses being made to a problem that has long plagued inner city public schools: the inability to reach and teach great numbers of black boys, who then go on to unsuccessful futures marred by joblessness, poverty and crime.
The crisis is helping to destroy an entire generation of young blacks - unraveling the fabric of once-vibrant black communities, forfeiting the future of black families, and placing great social and economic burdens on the rest of America's population.
A plethora of alarming statistics bear this out: more than half of black males enrolled in Chicago high schools never graduate; 29 percent of black men between 20 and 29 spent time in the Cook County Jail last year; and black men nationwide stand a 1 in 21 chance of being murdered.
Now, a wave of new programs aimed at guiding black boys through the perils of growing up and helping them make the most of education is evident in many parts of the United States. One key difference about the new effort is that an increasing number of black men are signing on to nurture the next generation.
Many have lost faith in the ability of ill-equipped public school systems to inspire young black males, set them on the right path and provide them with the skills needed for jobs, citizenship and personal satisfaction.
Tens of thousands of blacks are fanning out in communities across the nation, devising programs in public schools, churches, community organizations, businesses and universities, according to educators and black community leaders.
"A great number have taken it upon ourselves to impact positively on our communities," said Haki Madhubuti, a nationally known, Chicago-based poet, essayist, teacher and publisher.
"It is the responsibility of men and women, but primarily men, to deal with the problems of young black men," Madhubuti said. "We're about doing that." His recent book, "Black Men; Obsolete, Single, Dangerous?" offers strategies.
At the heart of many efforts are education programs steeped in African and African-American history and culture, which advocates insist is an effective method to strengthen self-image and build self-esteem.
About two dozen Chicago public schools have adopted or are considering setting up so-called Afrocentric curriculums.
Charlene Porter hopes that her sixth-grade son will be chosen as one of the 30 mostly seventh- and eighth-graders being selected for the weekly image-building sessions at Jensen Scholastic Academy, a public school on Chicago's West Side.
A single parent and member of the school council, Porter said she has had difficulty finding role models for her 10-year-old. "He hasn't even had a male teacher," she said.
"When he got to the fourth grade, he drove me crazy. I could tell his self-esteem was real low. I cried through it. I'm just hoping that he's chosen."
One of the most intriguing programs is called Rites of Passage, in which black men use traditional African rituals and principles to mark stages of growth and development - seeking to provide boys with a cultural context and the inner resources needed to resist the deadly temptations of urban ghettos.
"It helps a person understand who they are, all the way from the beginning of time, and when that happens it creates inter-personal power," said Reuben Harpole of the Center for Urban Community Development at the University of Wisconsin.
"Once you know who and what you are, no one can stop you from reaching your goal," said Harpole, who next month will teach a course on the Rites of Passage approach at Malcolm X College in Chicago.
Another program is Concerned Black Men Inc., a national organization that has developed a mentorship program called Project 2000. Students meet and work with successful black men who can serve as long-term role models.
The adults are committed to working with the same youngsters until the year 2000, from which the name is derived.
Public schools are especially targeted because a majority of black boys appear doomed for failure as early as kindergarten in school systems that have low expectations for them, isolate them in slow-track or special education classes, and suspend them at greater rates than other children, according to several recent surveys and studies.
A recent Rand Corp. study found that a pervasive national pattern of tracking - or placing students in classes based on abilities - has led to educational inequities for poor and minority students.
"Because schools judge so many low-income and minority students to have low ability, many of these students suffer from being in classrooms that offer less, even if their schools, as a whole, do not," the study said.
Research also shows that teachers fail to recognize differing learning styles that often exist for black and white children, said Dr. Jawanza Kunjufu, president of African-American Images, a Chicago publishing and education consulting firm.
"There is something drastically wrong when you have such a large number of black boys suspended or placed in special education," said Kunjufu, who has been hired to conduct the Jensen school's image-building sessions for young blacks.
"The rumor is out there that you have to come out of `Leave It to Beaver' to be a high-achieving student. Low-income schools can produce high-achieving students," he said.
Afrocentric curriculums, in which African culture is infused into lessons ranging from social studies to mathematics, is seen as a way to bring about this goal.
The idea is not to ignore European history, or teach only African history, but to provide children with a sense of cultural identity that they do not get from traditional classes.
Conrad Worrill of the Black United Front, a Chicago education advocacy group, has spearheaded a move for an Afrocentric-based curriculum in the city.
"I think anything that is working to save African-American males from this epidemic that is taking place in our country is worth a try," Worrill said. "Certainly what is going on now is not working."