Soar: How Boys Learn, Succeed, and Develop Character

David C. Banks with G.F. Lichtenberg

256 pages, Atria/37 Ink, 2014

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Beyond Islands of Success

Let me be clear: if the only story I had to tell was how one or even a few schools overcame the odds, I wouldn’t have written a book. If I didn’t believe that our experience could improve the lives of young men in varied communities—rural, urban, even abroad, where the most recent requests to partner with Eagle have come from—I wouldn’t have written a book. I’m not all that interested in little islands of success. Stories of how individual teachers inspire their students and even stories of teachers who have inspired me are reflected in these pages, and I’m always impressed with excellent educators and deeply grateful for their work, but I’ve learned that a few exceptional educators are not enough. The sad truth, when you hear an amazing story about that one inspiring teacher in a failing school, is that most students were never in her class. A lone success—one exceptional principal, one inner-city kid who makes it big, or one family that beats the odds—may do great things, but fundamentally, nothing changes. The close-up on that successful face inspires us, but the bigger picture remains: the tiny number who find a way out and the vast majority who are essentially abandoned.

Many of us felt the painful urgency of this situation when we watched the documentary Waiting for Superman, which evoked the desperation of families hoping to get their children into a few elementary schools that offered the promise of a better future. That compelling film showed what was at stake and framed the question, What can we do? But the film only addressed elementary school students, not the long journey from elementary school through college and adult achievement. It didn’t provide the answer.

Our answer begins with a change of mindset. I remember attending the New York premiere of the movie Malcolm X, starring Denzel Washington. I was always highly inspired by the way Malcolm transformed himself from a street hustler who was only out for himself into a leader who saw the humanity in everyone. Malcolm once said, “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today,” and that became one of the guiding principles for Eagle Academy.

When the movie ended and I came out of the theater, there were journalists conducting interviews. A South African reporter asked me, “Who do you think will be the next Malcolm X?” People ask this sort of question all the time. Who will be the next Martin Luther King, Jr.? Who will be the next Nelson Mandela or Barack Obama? Who’s the next solitary hero in history’s line? To me, that misses the whole point.

So when she asked me, I told her, “I am. I’m the next Malcolm X.”

She looked surprised.

Then I pointed to my brother Phil, who was beside me. I said, “He’s the next Malcolm X.” I wanted the reporter to understand that there are many of us who possess the same drive, determination, and love for our communities that Malcolm had, and that the time has come to stop looking for the next one-in-a-million miracle. We need to think much bigger, and empower all the Malcolms among us.

To me, what matters most in my story is not founding Eagle Academy in the Bronx. That was just a step. After we made that school a success, we founded another Eagle school in Brooklyn, where Rashad Meade was the principal. A new group of different yet dedicated people took what we had learned and built on it and succeeded there. And then we founded a third Eagle school in Queens with yet another principal, Kenyatte Reid, and another committed staff, and they made it work again. In the Bronx, average attendance has been 90 percent; in the Brooklyn and Queens schools it’s about 95 percent. We’re getting better at this as we go along.

Again, I didn’t write this book to trumpet the success of a few schools. I did so because of the knowledge we have gleaned as we have learned how to raise our students to soar—knowledge I can now share with all those who raise, educate, support, employ, and believe in young men, of any background, anywhere.

At Eagle, we certainly don’t know everything. Our method is a constant process of new discovery of what our young men need and experimentation to find what will better help them to flourish. But fundamentally, as I will describe in this book, we have cracked the code. The Eagle method is not specific to race or socioeconomic status. It is a philosophy and a set of practical strategies that can be adapted to embrace and support young men of any background to achieve their promise and potential. It shows what we can all accomplish—in our homes and in our schools, in our community organizations and our businesses, in our towns and cities small and large—as we help shape the young people who will determine our nation’s future.

That’s no exaggeration. Where our young men are not succeeding, school ratings fall and take property values with them. Crime increases. Budgets strain to meet the cost of incarcerating our young people. Businesses struggle to find skilled workers, and retailers find fewer buyers for their goods. As education writers Richard Whitmire and Professor William Brozo have argued, “The marathon to produce the most educated work force—and therefore the most prosperous nation—really comes down to this: whichever nation solves the ‘boy troubles’ wins the race.” Like it or not, the success of young men impacts us all.

If young men in this country sink under the weight of misunderstanding and wasted potential, our economy and our quality of life will sink with them. If our young men succeed as our young women have increasingly been able to do, then this country will succeed with them.

We don’t need to wait on experts to conduct further studies. We don’t need to throw up our hands in despair. I wrote this book to sound a call to action. If we can spread this message widely enough and act on what we now know, we can help restore our country’s place in the global economy. Every young man can, and should, soar like an Eagle.

Reprinted with permission of Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2014 by David C. Brooks.