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Ceremony honoring black male high school grads aims to show kids what’s possible

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Updated: July 30, 2013 6:04AM

Michael Sanson, 17, of Marquette Park, will study architecture at Carleton College.

Diquan Collier, 18, of Roseland, plans to enroll at a community college.

Johnnie Jones, 19, of North Lawndale, isn’t sure yet what he’s going to do.

But already the three have beaten 1 in 2 odds, by graduating recently from high school.

“A lot of us don’t make it,” said Jones, who just graduated from Farragut Academy.

In a first-of-its-kind event here, about 500 black males who graduated from area public high schools this month are to be recognized for that accomplishment before thousands. They also will be mentored and offered options .

Organizers label it a Mass Black Male Graduation and Transition to Manhood Ceremony. It will be held Saturday at Chicago State University.

But the graduates won’t be the most important young men at this rite-of-passage event.

Rather, it’s the hundreds of black male eighth-graders invited to witness it.

“A critical part is encouraging as many eighth-graders as possible to see the direction they must head in, that it can be done,” said organizer Phillip Jackson of the Black Star Project, a Chicago group that works to close the racial achievement gap. “The class of 2017, we need to be working on right now.”

Black males in the Chicago Public Schools have the highest dropout rate of any group — in 2010 about 1 in 8, according to the Consortium on Chicago School Research.

Only 44 percent of this CPS demographic was achieving a high school diploma in 2010, according to the Schott Foundation on Public Education. Today, it’s just half.

And numbers from a distressing 2006 Consortium study — finding only 3 of 100 black males in CPS earn a bachelor’s degree by their mid-20s — today stand at 9 of 100.

Nationally, a growing movement is embracing very public ceremonial acknowledgments of black males at milestones of their educational journey as a new battle strategy.

“This ceremonial recognition is designed to shine a light on what they have achieved and what they are capable of achieving,” Chicago State President Wayne Watson said.

Long practiced at Chicago’s wildly successful Urban Prep Academies, and now pushed in cities from Cleveland to Oakland, Calif., the goal is to boost college attendance and deter young black males from pathways contributing to spiraling community violence.

“It’s about how we help our young black men see opportunities, not leaving them to figure it out,” said Alicia Dixon, of the Marcus Foster Education Fund in Oakland.

Her agency is leading the College Bound Brotherhood, a nonprofit collaboration that held its third-annual such ceremony this month for teens from the Bay Area.

“Public support has grown. We have to accommodate folks with simulcasts,” she said.

Nationally, in 2010, a dismal 47 percent of black males were graduating from high school.

Saturday’s event has drawn prominent names in politics, law, medicine and business — black men whose role is to serve as elders, offering group and one-on-one mentoring.

“We know the problem. It’s like the weather report. We know it’s raining. We know next weekend there will be more violence,” said one, Macy’s Regional Director David Day. “It’s time we spend more time on what we can do until the sun starts shining.”

The National Rites of Passage Institute in Cleveland, which will host a conference in Baltimore in July showcasing best practices, has seen more requests for training.

“We’re seeing rites of passage used as a youth development strategy, a means to an end,” said its founder, Paul Hill. “We as a people must be held responsible for acculturation and socialization of our children, to rejuvenate our community.”

Chicago artist/rapper Lupe Fiasco will offer Saturday’s keynote.

Urban Prep founder Tim King has seen the impact of such public rites of passage at the lauded CPS charter for black males. Boasting a 100 percent college acceptance rate among its primarily low-income students, Urban Prep holds very public college signing day ceremonies — originally at U.S. Cellular Field, now at Daley Plaza.

“It is a way to reinforce in students’ minds, and perhaps more importantly, in the public eye, a counter-narrative about what it means to be a black male,” King said.

“It’s very powerful. This notion of rites of passage is something that works.”

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