Southeast Queens legislators encourage black youth

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City Councilman Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans) and others in the education and criminal justice fields urged young black men to stay in school and their parents to keep a close watch on them at a panel focused on how to help black male youth improve in school.

“You can be anything you want to be,” said state Sen. Malcolm Smith (D-St. Albans), who attended the event.

The panel discussion, which was followed by breakout sessions in which the more than 70 visitors could directly address the panelists, was hosted by the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority’s Queens Alumnae chapter and held at the Renaissance School at 109-89 204th St. in St. Albans.

The panelists — who included Comrie, educators Kenney Robinson and Gareth Robinson, Brooklyn Assistant Principal Leander Windley, public servant Jerome Rice, life coach Ted Gustus Jr., New York Supreme Court Judge Kenneth Holder and 16-year-old high school student Khaair Morrison — all discussed how to address the wide gaps in educational achievement between young black men and their white peers in New York.

Roslin Spigner, president of the Queens sorority chapter, cited data from “Yes We Can: The 2010 Schott 50 State Report on Black Males in Public Education,” which found black males in New York had a 25 percent graduation rate compared to the 68 percent graduation rate for white males. The study also found black males were lagging behind their white peers in reading and math, were less likely to be enrolled in gifted and talented programs and were more likely to be placed in special education classes.

“Everyone in this room should feel the shame, but we are no longer able to blame,” Spigner said.

In part, the panel said they believed outside factors such as institutionalized racism contributed to the problem. Comrie said he thought the education system was designed to fail its students, and many young men were more advanced than the curriculum they received.

“We have an extremely large number of teachers and administrators who are not willing and able to do a better job for our kids,” said Gareth Robinson.

But Holder told young men it was their hard work and education that would lead to life success. He said that since southeast Queens had the highest per capita income of blacks in the country in one location, there was no economic reason to sell drugs despite how glamorous the illicit trade may look.

“Try to steer clear of those negative influences,” Holder said.

Comrie also said that young black men could fight racism by getting involved in their communities and urged them to consider public service.

Gareth Robinson also told them to get out and vote. He also added that parents should stay involved in their children’s lives, especially when they are teenagers.

“High school is not the time to step back. High school is the time to set your foot down,” Robinson said.

Morrison said he believed adults sometimes look down on the young and that young men need affection and love but also structure. He said some young men may even gravitate to gangs because they provide a certain level of structure.

“We don’t really get any encouragement to do the right thing,” he said.

Emile Turnage, 14, said he was glad to hear about the issues discussed, especially racism in the classroom.

“It was very informative,” he said.

Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4564.

Updated 10:48 am, October 12, 2011
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