Drugs, violence, crime, fatherless homes—like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse they have galloped in to doom the inner city, each toxic aspect impacting the other.

How do you break the vicious cycle? Thanks to a school called DECA, a secondary school that aspires not only to send all its graduates to college but to keep them there until graduation, there are young people who are doing just that.

Although many Americans of all colors suffer from the culture of poverty, black Americans have borne the additional burdens of a long history of discrimination. Most African Americans, to be sure, are not poor. About half of the black population live solid middle-class lives; more than a third live in the suburbs. And not all families headed by single mothers are dysfunctional. Many unmarried women are strong, dedicated parents who want the best for their children.


Those inner-city residents who merit our attention, however, are those whose statistics point to the challenges their children face: The failure to educate America’s children, especially those in the inner cities, is a subject that affects us all and the future of our country, as evidenced by the shocking figures.

While America’s students lag well behind other countries in science, reading and math, the scores of the inner city’s African-American students are even lower than those of their white peers. The average black twelfth-grader’s academic achievement is no higher than the average white eighth-grader’s; only 12% of black eighth-grade boys are proficient in math, compared to 44% of white boys. About half of African-American teens graduate from high school—43% for males—compared to 76% of whites.

While only 12% of Americans are black, their numbers make up 44% of the prison population, and the homicide rate for black males is seven times that of their white contemporaries.

The cost to the community, both financially and socially, is enormous. By the time they reach their mid-thirties, 60% of black male high school drop-outs have been in prison, whereas “fewer than 1 percent of those with bachelor’s degrees will be incarcerated.” The average cost we bear per inmate is about $25,000 a year, without considering the loss of tax income from which society would benefit if they were employed. With a college degree, on the other hand, a worker can earn over one million dollars more than a high-school graduate over a lifetime.

In virtually every inner city in America, young people face a grim future. DECA’s hometown, Dayton, Ohio, has been called the quintessential American city, and, as such, it reflects what has been happening throughout the country: the decline of manufacturing jobs that use low-skilled labor, an increase in unemployment, and the high crime rate associated with poverty. Close to one-third of its residents, 32.5%, are poor, placing its poverty rate slightly above those of other rust belt cities like Milwaukee and St. Louis, and slightly below troubled Detroit and Cleveland. Almost half, 42.9%, of its residents are African American. Of DECA’s approximately 400 students, 84.6% are black; 74.5% are considered to be at the poverty level.

It’s hard to know where to begin to describe the problems, given the interacting tangle of forces that trap so many children in their net, like the “throwaway kids,” a term that DECA student Marquita uses.

Orphaned Marquita’s alcoholic grandmother rarely sent her to her grade school, and when she did it was in dirty, worn clothes. It was only thanks to a caring principal that the child had any clothes at all. In the fifth grade, she spent many nights at a friend’s house after Grandma shut her out of the house. Marquita would eventually live at Daybreak, a shelter for runaways, or for “throwaways,” as she puts it.

Kaneesha was also a “throwaway.” Kaneesha’s mother had died when she was two, her father when she was four. The next seven years were spent with her dad’s girlfriend, whom she called “Mom,” until the latter decided she’d had enough of motherhood: the preteen would go into foster care. Next came a series of foster homes, which, says Kaneesha, would cause her to have “anger and depression. . .”

Eighteen-year-old Daron’s father “screamed and yelled and argued about everything,” and the boy was always at odds with his abusive stepmother. Eventually his father threw him out of the house, claiming he didn’t think he was his son to begin with.

There are some who would say that Marquita, Kaneehsa and Daron, born and raised at the low end of the socioeconomic scale, seem fated for a lifetime of violence and poverty and of mind-numbing low-skilled jobs, if they are employed at all. But are they?

The students at DECA, in our typical Midwestern city, with its typical inner city, are breaking the pattern and headed for success, in spite of their often dysfunctional upbringing. As Shawna, child of a crack addict, says, “This school, I think, has saved me. If I hadn’t been here, with all that was going on in my life, I probably would have given up,” thinking “maybe it’s just not meant for girls like me to go to college.”

How does DECA do it? Through a combination of what’s been called “cuddles and challenges,” nontraditional methods, and a culture that stresses cooperation among and between staff and students, even those as disadvantaged as Marquita, Kaneesha, Daron, and Shawna can realize their potential. What’s more, as we’ll see, there is much that other schools can emulate.

I was first introduced to the school when my husband Matt joined its board of trustees. Soon he was extolling its successes, especially with those students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The more I heard, the more I realized how important it was that their stories be told

If it is possible to turn around the bleak picture of today’s urban young people—and it is—this is a story well worth telling. And that’s what Breaking the Cycle aims to do.

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