High school graduation rates for Black boys improve, but disparities persist, report finds

A bunch of people in purple graduation gowns toss their mortarboards.
Establishing systems of support for Black boys to succeed is the key to raising high school graduation rates, according to John Jackson, president of the Schott Foundation, who commissioned a new report on Black male graduation rates. (Chuck Savage / Getty Images)

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Black boys consistently have the lowest high school graduation rates among all race and gender groups, a disparity that could be improved with more government investments, a new study looking at Newark Public Schools and more than a dozen other districts found.

In Newark Public Schools, the four-year high school graduation rate for Black boys was 72% in 2019-20, according to a new report from the Schott Foundation, a national organization that promotes equity in public education. That compares with 86% for all students in the district during that same year, according to the state’s school performance report. Black students accounted for a little more than one-third of the district’s enrollment during the 2021-22 school year.

The report also found that New Jersey had the fifth highest Black male graduation rate in the country, at 86% for 2019-20.

The study analyzed four-year high school graduation rate data between 2012 and 2020, the most recent data published by the federal government. The lack of “consistent” federal data is one of the reasons the organization produced the report.

“At the federal and state level, there needs to be more consistency in collecting and publishing this data,” said John Jackson, president and CEO of the Schott Foundation.

During the 2022-23 school year, Newark Public Schools’ overall high school graduation rate was 86%, according to the state’s school performance report.

High school graduation is a significant indicator of a young person’s future success, Jackson said.

Jackson said establishing environments that promote success for Black boys in and out of school — what his foundation calls “loving systems” — is the key to raising graduation rates. But providing consistent support for Black boys also yields positive outcomes for all students, the report found.

“It’s not about establishing a few good schools. But again, it’s about building the loving system within Newark and all cities,” Jackson said.

For almost 20 years, the foundation has collected and analyzed national data on four-year high school graduation rates for Black boys compared with other student groups as a way to raise awareness about the challenges Black students face, such as poverty, housing instability, and racial segregation.

This year’s study is the organization’s sixth report to examine the rates in Newark Public Schools and 14 other school districts across the country with a large number of Black students enrolled.

It’s important to understand the challenges of all students, Jackson said, but specifically Black teens, a group whose average life expectancy has been affected by the negative effects of low high school graduation rates.

“The higher you go in your education level, the more likely you are to have access to health care, the more likely you are to own your own home, the less likely you are to be incarcerated or homeless,” Jackson said.

Although federal data on national high school graduation rates from 2021 to 2023 is missing, the study also points to the negative impact COVID had on students, specifically students who are Black. When the pandemic forced schools to switch to remote instruction, it hindered student learning but it also affected the health of Black people, Jackson added.

Following the pandemic, average Black life expectancy declined by four years, largely driven by Black males, whose life expectancy declined by five years, the largest decrease of any race or gender group, according to the report. Understanding the unique factors affecting Black boys outside school can also help create better reforms to keep them in school, Jackson said.

Jackson says New Jersey is an example of a place where state and community investments have worked to improve graduation rates, but rates for Black teens still lag behind national averages. Additionally, attending schools that are racially segregated and have a higher number of Black and Latino students also affects learning outcomes, Jackson said.

According to the report, racially segregated schools have higher shares of teachers with less than two years of experience, lower numbers of school counselors, and poor facilities.

Additionally, Black boys experience the highest rates of out-of-school suspensions and are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than white boys, according to the report. Black boys are also more likely to be navigating poverty and homelessness, which can often lead them to miss school, further raising absenteeism rates, the report found.

Despite the disparities, Jackson says there are bright spots that could help identify solutions and understand what works. But it’s important to “go beyond just analyzing the supports that exist within a school,” Jackson added.

Of the 15 school districts mentioned in the study, only one school district had a graduation rate higher than the national average: Mobile, Alabama, at 88%.

Black and Latino boys had similar graduation rates, with slightly higher rates for Latino boys in close to half of the 15 school districts examined, the report found. But in places where graduation rates for Black boys were high, all boys, including white boys, performed better.

“The data indicates that when we center Black males and provide the support to students of color, it benefits all students,” Jackson said. “So, this isn’t about taking from one group and providing to another. It’s about making the whole better.”

Additionally, the report found that outcomes for Black teens were better in areas with lower levels of socioeconomic inequality.

Generally, graduation rates for Black boys were lower in areas with high levels of unemployment and poverty, the report noted. Graduation rates among Black teens also tend to be lower in places with more segregation, indicating resource disparities within schools in those areas, according to the report.

Chicago, Newark, and Philadelphia school districts are within cities with “extreme levels of residential segregation” and particularly low high school graduation rates for Black boys. But in order to make widespread improvements in graduation rates for all students, Jackson said, federal and state leaders need to think about long-term solutions in addressing racial inequities.

“Quite frankly,” he added, “the federal government should really look at a stimulus package that is focused on families in creating loving systems and providing those levels of supports.”

Jessie Gómez is a reporter for Chalkbeat Newark, covering public education in the city. Contact Jessie at jgomez@chalkbeat.org.

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