"I don't want my sisters to follow what I've gone through."
Yayudin Seid, 17, sits in the fourth-floor conference room of Washington, D.C.'s Latin American Youth Center (LAYC). The Ethiopian high school senior is on a path toward college and a career in biochemistry, but it wasn't always that way. A few short years ago, the thought of pursuing higher education was an incomprehensible abstract and he was more interested in what he now calls outside "distractions."
"I didn't know what college would do to my life," Seid said. "I didn't even know what 'GPA' meant!"
He immigrated to the United States from Ethiopia as a 10-year-old and now lives with his parents and three younger sisters in an apartment in the city. His mother, he said, is always "so proud" to hear about someone succeeding in college, but she and her husband aren't in a position to help their children navigate the complicated college application process. It's not something either of his parents are familiar with and they're both busy working caretaker jobs to support the family.
That's where the LAYC stepped in. Seid heard about the youth center from a friend and was hooked after attending a Christmas party several years ago. Now, he's part of several programs the center runs to help young people succeed. One program encourages teens to brainstorm and implement ideas to make their communities safer. Another is aimed at preventing the spread of STDs. The center has helped him find summer jobs and volunteer opportunities that add to the resume they helped him craft as part of his college applications. Last summer, they helped him participate in a program at nearby Georgetown University, which gave him his first taste of what a college campus has to offer.
A quick glance at high school dropout rates and college attendance levels over the past few decades reveals an increasingly rosy picture. Fewer kids are quitting high school and more young people are making their way to college.
The story looks especially positive for Hispanic youth. High school dropout rates have roughly halved since 2000, and Hispanic high school graduates are now more likely than whites to enroll in college.
But the numbers mask an alarming fact: boys aren't making the same strides as girls.
More than three in five degrees awarded to Hispanics in 2009 were earned by women, and the ratio appears to be growing. There's also a disparity when it comes to African-American young people.
What's going on?
Minority boys experience a unique set of "challenges," Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters Monday morning at the Education Department in Washington, D.C.
"It's a heads up for what the real world looks like," Seid said.
African-American and Latino young men are disproportionately likely to grow up in poverty and fall into the school-to-prison pipeline.
Teacher diversity is low and minority kids are disproportionately likely to grow up in fatherless homes, Duncan said.
More than 80 percent of the bachelor's degrees in education awarded during the 2009-10 school year were to non-Latino white students, according to the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. Three-quarters went to women, and only 4.2 percent went to Latinos.
Kids tend to do best when they can look to someone from a similar background as a role model.
Dexter Voisin, a professor at the University of Chicago who has studied urban youth closely, calls that "ethnic reflection" and says it's very important. Not that a mentor has to be from a similar background or be the same ethnicity, but it can help vulnerable kids connect.
Young boys aren't seeing many of those positive models they can relate to at home or at school.
A Call To Action
A White House event on Thursday aims to look at ways to help young men of color succeed. Called "My Brother's Keeper," it will create a "public-private partnership" to support young men through high school and into higher education.
The effort has backing from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies, Bloomberg Philanthropies and others. White House officials said that business leaders from Sam's Club, American Express and McDonald's have also offered their support. The administration, led by Assistant to the President and Cabinet Secretary Broderick Johnson, will create a task force to evaluate different approaches, from mentorship and providing information about financial aid and college applications to juvenile justice reform, and then work to help local organizations introduce effective practices on the ground.
The administration has pointed to the success of Chicago nonprofit Youth Guidance's Becoming a Man program as an example of a program getting positive results.
Wendy Fine, director of research, evaluation and technology for the group, said "The things [Duncan] mentioned are probably the things we notice most," referring to the single-parent households and lack of teacher diversity.
She added that the kids her organization works with tend to come from the lower end of the income scale, and neighborhoods with higher rates of violence and unemployment.
But so do the girls. What else is at play?
No Girls Allowed
Seid agrees that things are harder for minority boys.
"That's what society thinks," he said. When pressed to elaborate, he said society expects young men of color to become involved in violence and to fail at school, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Society expects girls to study.
Juan Guevara, a 16-year-old El Salvadorean teen who also spends his afternoons at the LAYC, agrees.
It's "harder for guys to study," he said.
Voisin says that while girls grow up in the same households, their "exposure to violence is different." Girls are seen as more vulnerable and watched more closely. They spend the bulk of their time at school or at home. Boys are more likely to spend a good chunk of time in the community, with their peers, which leaves them more open to involvement in things like gang violence.
Fine said the girls and boys she sees tend to react to situations differently - boys generally act out while girls internalize things.
That may have repercussions when it comes to school discipline, with minority boys being far more likely to end up in the "school-to-prison" pipeline. Part of that has to do with what the administration has said is schools sometimes jumping to dial 911 before working through a situation, particularly with young minority men.
Voisin agrees. He also added that kids growing up in violent and stressful situations can experience high rates of anxiety and depression. Sometimes, he said, their actions are viewed as "problematic behaviors rather than symptoms of stress." Girls, he added, withdraw and are more likely to be overlooked at school.
So what can be done to close the gap between girls and boys when it comes to high school graduation and college enrollment?
Closing The Divide
The president has already encouraged colleges to do a better job of reaching out to minority, low-income students and urged schools to reevaluate how they discipline students.
Guevara, who says his grades have improved with tutoring and homework help at LAYC, says helping young men complete their school work is the most helpful thing for him. Seid says community programs that give young people a sense of empowerment and community, like the one aimed at ending community violence, pay off.
"Without the center, I'd probably be involved in things I shouldn't be involved in," he said, not wanting to elaborate.
Fine says mentorship is key, as is pointing out how positive actions now, like attendance at school, can pay off later, with a college acceptance letter. Voisin says career days can be especially effective in showing kids what their future might hold, particularly when known and successful members of the local community participate.
The issue is tricky, though. Not all young men of color have the same life experiences or challenges, and they're not all going to respond positively to the same type of outreach.
But Voisin said research has shown some methods work across the spectrum.
"We know that there are certain measures that support positive youth development across the board," Voisin said. "Mentoring is one of the greatest protective factors."
He's happy the issue is getting attention and that organizations like Becoming a Man exist and are helping change "group norms," but cautions that outreach needs to go beyond helping a young man fill out a financial aid form and sending him on his way.
"A lot of these kids have socio-emotional needs and they go to college and they don't remain there," Voisin said, "because some of their underlying needs are not addressed."
Acknowledging that these young men have unique needs that aren't being fully met is a step in the right direction.
Senior adviser to the president Valerie Jarrett said during a call with reporters that "when we let these boys fall through the cracks, we're crippling our ability to reach our potential as a nation."
This article is published with permission from Fusion, a TV and digital network that champions a smart, diverse and inclusive America. Fusion is a partner of National Journal and The Next America. Follow the author on Twitter: @Emily_DeRuy