Soar: How Boys Learn, Succeed, and Develop Character

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9781476760957: Soar: How Boys Learn, Succeed, and Develop Character

A respected educator, who has advised Hillary Clinton and Cory Booker on scholastic issues, presents a plan for teaching the country’s most educationally endangered group—boys.

David Banks knows a few things about at-risk boys. In 2004, he petitioned New York City’s mayor to allow an all-boys public school to open in one of the most troubled districts in the country, the South Bronx. He had a point to prove: When rituals that boys are innately drawn to are combined with college prep-level instruction and community mentorship, even the most challenging students can succeed. The result? The Eagle Academy for Young Men—the first all-boys public high school in New York City in more than thirty years—has flourished and has been successfully replicated in other boroughs and other states.

In Soar, Banks shares the experiences of individual kids from the Eagle Academy as well as his own personal story to help others get similar results. He shares the specific approach he and his team use to drive students, from tapping into their natural competitiveness and peer-sensitivity, to providing rituals that mimic their instinctual need for hierarchy and fraternal camaraderie, to finding teachers who know firsthand the obstacles these students face.

Result-oriented and clear-eyed about the challenges and the promises of educating boys at risk, Soar is a book that no one who wants to see our young men flourish—from parents and educators to teachers and employers—can afford to miss.

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About the Author:

David Banks is the president and CEO of the Eagle Academy Foundation. He was the Founding Principal of the Eagle Academy for Young Men, the first school in a network of innovative all-boys public school in New York City. David resides in New Jersey. He has four children, Jamaal, Aaliyah, Ali, and Malcolm Rashaad, and one grandchild, Hayley.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Soar

CHAPTER ONE

“SOMEBODY NEEDS TO HELP THE BOYS”

How Can We Stand Up for Young Men?

The knock came on the door of my elementary school classroom while I was sitting at my desk. Another student, one from my younger brother’s class, brought in a note for my teacher. I knew what it said: “Could David please come speak to his brother? Philip is acting up again.”

I had a good reputation in elementary school and I was considered mature for my age. Philip’s teachers always seemed to think that if anyone could influence him, I could. And so I’d get up from my desk and follow the student monitor who had brought the note, out of the classroom and down the hall. The walk felt as if it took a long time. When my brother’s teacher saw me, in front of the whole class she would say something like: “Your brother is not listening. He’s not being respectful. I’ve spoken to him time and again! Soon I’m going to have to call your parents, but I thought I’d ask you first, David. Maybe he’ll listen to you.” The whole speech was delivered in a tone that I knew drove Phil crazy. His classmates all stared.

My brother would get up from his seat, push in his chair, and the teacher would lead us out into the hallway, where she’d say more or less the same thing again. I would answer, “Yes, ma’am,” and act as respectfully as I could. Phil wouldn’t say a word.

Alone in the hallway, we’d both start talking really fast. I’d say something like, “What’s the matter with you? Don’t you know Daddy’s going to come to school and get you? Don’t you know he’s going to whup your butt?”

He’d say something along the lines of “I didn’t do it! It was so-and-so and he did this and I didn’t do that, but she wouldn’t listen. She’s always blaming me! All I did was try to explain!”

We both talked at once, rapid fire, until Phil was called back inside. And so it went. Four times a year, we would get our report cards and bring them home. Mine would be full of 90s and 95s; his had several 55s and 60s. And this was head-to-head competition: my brother and I were only eleven months apart—I was born in January, and he was born in December—and we were in the same grade.

Our father was an involved parent, interested in what we had to say, and as an enthusiastic player in our recreational games, he was always ready to join us for football and such. But he was also a strict, old-school disciplinarian, most of all when it came to our grades. He himself had dropped out of high school and worked years at hard, low-paying, physical jobs, including stints as a shipping clerk and in a men’s clothing warehouse. When they first married, my parents, like many young couples, couldn’t afford their own apartment; they had to live with my grandfather. My dad came to see that dropping out of school had been an enormous mistake. In time, he earned a GED (a high-school equivalency degree) and started taking civil service exams, winning jobs in the post office, working as a conductor for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and finally becoming a police officer. That was considered a top-level civil service job, but he soon found that even in his success, he was limited in how far he could climb, how many promotions he could get. To overcome these limits, he studied part-time for many years, earning an undergraduate degree and taking some graduate courses.

Phil says that when he showed Dad his grades, there was no talking permitted. Phil might try to explain: “Dad, it’s a lot of pressure, always going up against an honor-roll student like Dave,” but our dad wouldn’t hear it. Punishment was his response.

BOY ENERGY

Why wasn’t my brother living up to his potential? I’ve had decades to think it over, as a brother, a father, a teacher, and a school principal. In part, I see now that he was the classic middle child, always in the first child’s shadow. It was worse because we were so close in age. He would have been better off starting school the following September, but as it was, I was always among the oldest kids in my class, and he was always the youngest in his. I had that extra year of maturity going for me, and particularly for boys, maturity can take a while to kick in. Developmentally, he was a year behind in both academics and social maturity; we wondered when he would ever realize his potential. I had many chances to experience early success, while he rarely experienced even the small victories and moments of recognition that help motivate all of us to achieve greater things. He must have felt, from early on, Why am I even trying to be an A student or a well-behaved kid? I’m never going to catch up to my older brother. And so he tried to stand out as a smart-aleck.

Phil was not a terror, not out of control, not the kind of kid to get into violence, but he had a lot of energy, even more than the average boy. Part of that energy came from frustration. Energetic, often singled out by his teachers, frustrated—he could be a handful. The teachers tended to lose patience. As each in turn got to know him as an underachieving student and a provocative presence in her classroom, that became his identity. They looked for more of it. He heard an awful lot of “Stop it, Philip!”

As an adult, I found out from my parents that the teachers and the administration of our school had recommended that Philip be put on medication because, they said, he was “too hyper.” They made the same recommendation for him that is made for lots of other active boys, black and brown boys most of all. Young men of color are three times more likely to be categorized as mentally retarded or learning disabled—black students, for example, represent 17 percent of students overall but 41 percent of those in “special ed” classes; and in those classes there are more than twice as many black males as black females.

This doesn’t necessarily stem from racism or a bias against boys. The majority of teachers in this country are white and female, and their personal experiences give them little in common with boys like Philip. When they were girls, they probably liked school. Teachers approved of their behavior. They did well. For all those reasons, they may have been inspired to become teachers themselves, but the very strengths that qualified them to be teachers meant that they probably lacked the personal context for understanding a boy like Philip—­either why he was so unhappy in the classroom or how his feelings could provoke him to behave in disruptive ways. The result, as Peg Tyre, author of The Trouble with Boys, described it, is that as early as preschool, “many young men get into a pattern of negative feedback . . . based on pretty normal behavior.”

Anyone could see that Phil was actually very verbal, very quick-witted. In fact, his intelligence was part of what made him so hard for teachers—or anyone—to handle. When a teacher would give him a directive, he might tell her, “You’re not my mother and you’re not my father. You have no right to tell me what to do!” Just the thing to get under a teacher’s skin—and to distract her from seeing the challenges he faced and the help he would require to reach his potential.

Philip was not just angry and mouthy in school, he was also bored. In my experience, smart girls who get bored often have the social skills to play along, but Philip, like a lot of boys, had trouble seeing the purpose in the distant end results of education. Many boys will ask themselves, Why are we doing this? What’s the point? And when they don’t find an answer, something practical they can see in front of them, instead of keeping their confusion and frustration to themselves, they act out. They are no less unhappy than the bored girls, but they are far more likely to get punished for it.

Had my brother been born to a different kind of mom and dad, he could have easily become a statistic. They might have given him medication to take away his energy, and then, once they’d slowed him down, the school could have put him in the slow class. That would certainly have made it easier for his teachers to teach, and it has happened to countless young men who never achieve the level of success that they should have. But my parents told the school administration, “Sorry, no. He’s got a little extra energy but you’re going to have to figure out how to deal with that.”

Phil’s grades were mixed, near failing sometimes, through middle school. In high school, he got them up into what could be called the average range, the sort of grades that make it hard to get into a good college. He was not a failure, but he was a chronically mediocre performer.

What could he do? Report cards came every quarter, at which point my father would be waiting at home to judge his grades. Philip had a close friend named Stephen who also struggled academically. Stephen was good at drawing, and he used to take his report card, which in those days was a paper card that the teacher filled out in pen, and touch it up a little before showing it to his mother. When it came to report-card forgery, some numbers were easier to work with than others. If Stephen received a 55, he could turn it into a convincing 85. If he got a 70, he could make it look like a 90. I don’t think my brother forged his grades, but even today he talks about school as if there was no realistic solution, only the fantasy that he could fool all the adults. “If I had just found a way to con that school issue,” he’s told me, “life would have been fantastic.”

I’ve asked him, “Couldn’t you have found a way to get better grades?”

“That wasn’t going to happen,” he said.

For me, school couldn’t have been much better. I was successful, well respected, and well liked. After I left elementary school, I kept in touch with my favorite teachers and my principal—and in fact, that school had only two principals in forty-five years, a remarkable measure of stability at a school that was in many ways excellent.

But to Philip and Stephen, it seemed hopeless, a rigged game. Their teachers couldn’t help them, their parents couldn’t help them, and the result over and over again was public humiliation and pain. Sometimes, my brother told me, he thought that the teachers and our ­father must enjoy having someone to punish.

And so, for years, the knock would come on my classroom door: another teacher asking me to “please do something about Philip.” Even our youngest brother, Terry, who shared a bedroom with him, will tell you that when we were growing up, he wasn’t sure how Phil would turn out.

I didn’t like getting called to Phil’s classroom. I was uncomfortable with that spotlight on me, on us both, as we tried and failed, over and over, to straighten him out. Nobody wants that kind of attention. I remember wondering, Why are you making me do this? Why do you even put me in this position?

I especially hated the way Phil, frustrated and embarrassed, would run his mouth. He would yell, “You’re a bastard, Dave! Mom and Dad had you before they got married. So you’re a bastard!” He would get under my skin until I just wanted to kick his butt.

One afternoon in the school yard he started in on that bastard stuff in front of everyone, and the next thing you know, I was beating him up. I punched him a couple of times and then held him down over a flight of concrete stairs. I could hear the excitement of the other kids watching—Yeah, yeah! Beat him up! It’s a fight!

As I held Phil pinned with his head hanging over the first stair, I had him right where I wanted him. And then I thought, This is my brother. I’m not supposed to be fighting my brother. Sure, we would ­always have our little fights at home, but now I was fighting with him in public while other people, some of them strangers, yelled for me to do him harm. It was, maybe, the worst feeling I ever had in my life.

A SECOND CHANCE

As seniors, we both applied to college. I got into every school but one. Philip received rejection after rejection. Finally, on the way home from our school’s senior trip, our dad told us, “Philip got accepted!”

“Yeah, Phil!” I said. “Wait, how do you know, Dad?”

“Some mail came in over the weekend, and I took the liberty of opening it!” My dad was super excited. I was excited for Phil, too. But Phil seemed only distantly pleased, as if this good fortune had happened to someone else.

Phil attended that school, Lincoln University in Oxford, Pennsylvania, which lays claim to being the oldest historically black college in the country. It was the school Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall attended, and also President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. Off in Pennsylvania, away from us, Phil transformed. He made the dean’s list, became president of his fraternity, and established himself as a leader, a star on campus. He met his wife, Denise, and married her. He graduated a different man.

We both finished college and came home looking for our first jobs. I became a safety officer in a school. Philip drove a bus for the MTA, feeling very proud to have a job with benefits, before he took the test for the New York City Police Department and became a beat cop like my dad. I remember our grandma Pearl was so upset about the dangers of being out on the street. “You didn’t go to college to walk around and be a cop!” she told him.

But my father encouraged Philip to see the police department as a career with long-term opportunities. In his own career, my dad always felt he lacked two things: a college degree and a mentor. But Philip had the degree and he had my dad, who was still “on the job,” as they say in the police force, a lieutenant two ranks above Phil. My dad would tell him: white kids come on the job, and their dads or their relatives who came up ahead of them make sure they focus on studying so they can pass exams and win promotions, which mean more authority, more money, more influence, and the chance to do more for their families. He told Phil that too many young black officers don’t have anyone higher up to mentor them, so they are just happy to carry a gun and wear a uniform, and to feel like a big shot in the neighborhood. They have no vision of their future.

Philip started taking the exams to qualify for promotion in the police department. He became a sergeant, and several years later a lieutenant. Now father and son held the same rank. Philip took the next test and was promoted to captain. That’s when Dad retired—he said that when you have to salute your own son, it’s time to go.

Soon, people who hadn’t seen my brother in years started saying to me, “Philip? You’ve got to be kidding me! Philip was such a knucklehead! He’s a captain now? He’s an inspector?”

Philip had been a kid no teacher expected to excel at this level. But here he was the commanding officer of a police precinct. In New York City, there are a small number of what are called one-star chiefs, and even smaller numbers of two- and three-star chiefs. Above them all, there is one four-star chief, known as the “chief of department,” who runs the day-to-day operations of the entire New York City Police Department and reports to the police commissioner, who is a civilian, a political appointee. In 2013, Chief Philip Banks became chief of department. This kid who seemed like he might miss his chance to go to college was now protecting the entire city of New York, and seeing his name on the short list as a candidate for police commissioner.

WHEN WILL THE LIGHT GO ON?

Watching Philip struggle for all of those years, then succeed when hardly anyone expected him to amount to much, taught me something I ha...

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