Some sobering findings were released this summer by the Superintendent's Advisory Committee on Black Male Achievement in Prince George's County:
Young black males are disproportionately highly represented in special education classes, dropouts and suspensions from school in Prince George's County.
Few black males are enrolled in upper-level science and math courses.
The median grade point average for black males in the county is 1.89 ("D") out of a 4.0 scale.
But despite these statistics, or because of them, a group of young black men at Suitland High School have decided to focus on self-improvement and positive black male images through a program called "Rites of Passage."
Rites of Passage was founded last year by Zack Berry, director of pupil services at Suitland. Berry said groups such as Rites of Passage are not a novel idea. "It's something I had done before, even at the middle school level." The group's purpose is to build self-confidence in black youths who are often stereotyped as underachievers.
Although supported in concept by the Prince George's County Public Schools, Rites of Passage is not considered an extracurricular activity nor does it receive any funds from the county. The program is considered a guidance project, run in the spare time of Berry and others.
"The group gives young black males a look up instead of a look behind," said program member David West, a junior at Suitland. "It shows the positive instead of the negative and illustrates that we too can be happy people."
Rites of Passage gives the students a "vehicle to show the world that they all don't end up face down on the six o'clock news . . . here they are free to express themselves and the depth of their knowledge," Berry said.
The group has approximately 100 members at Suitland from freshmen to seniors, with an executive committee consisting of Berry and 10 of the members meeting weekly.
Rites of Passage members focus on three main projects.
In the elementary school project, members go to six Prince George's County elementary schools whose students are likely to attend Suitland someday. Members give talks to both male and female, black and white students in the third through sixth grade about high school life and Suitland's curriculum. They read to the students and generally serve as "big brothers."
Berry said the Suitland students always carry their textbooks with them. "Often in order to be accepted by their peer groups, students will pretend to be dumb, pretty soon they're not pretending anymore," he said. "Part of the aim of the project is to illustrate that we motivate achievers."
The second project of the program is a partnership between African-American male teachers and students at Suitland and other schools. At Suitland, the teachers are kept abreast of the program's activities and offer their input and communication.
Students from local colleges, including the University of Maryland, George Mason University and Bowie State University, also participate in advisory and mentor programs with the Rites of Passage students.
The third element of Rites of Passage is a series of study sessions, which are designed to give student members an opportunity to learn facts about African-Americans in history, current events or works of literature by and about blacks. Berry said, "It's like one of the young men said recently, 'You don't know where you're going unless you know where you're coming from.' "
Berry explains that the emphasis of these sessions will provide what he calls "teachable moments, that time when you've sparked something in a student that makes them want to read, want to learn, that hopefully this will be another vechicle that makes these young men thirst for education."
In addition to these on-going projects, the group has held forums for the black male population -- members and non-members -- at Suitland, and has sent its recommendations for improvements in the curriculum to the superintendent's advisory committee.
The group has also conducted discussions with Suitland faculty to voice concerns about school problems.
Besides contributing time to elementary school children, the young men interviewed expressed the belief that Rites of Passage has indeed done something for them.
"It has shown me how to be a strong black man: how to carry myself and how to be a role model to others," said sophomore Corey Lyons.
"It gives me a sense of family," said John Jerden, a junior, "It makes me feel so good to see intellegent black men concerned with their community and each other."