Politics & Government

Schools respond to black male achievement gap

Michael Walker stood in front of the nine-member Minneapolis school board on a recent snowy night and told it that change must come to this Midwestern city, a place where black students are far more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than their white peers, and where educators are struggling to close one of the widest achievement gaps between the two in the nation.

“There is a larger system working against our black males,” said Walker, a 38-year-old former high school principal and basketball coach who became the head of the newly formed office of Black Male Student Achievement last July. He asked the board for $1.2 million to help boost test scores, reduce suspensions and improve graduation rates – and said it would also take new attitudes.

“We need beliefs to change,” Walker said, adding that too many black male students don’t see academic success in their future. Overall, just 15 percent of Minnesota’s black eighth-graders were considered proficient on national math tests in 2013, compared with 54 percent of their white peers.

In the 36,000-student Minneapolis district, less than a quarter of black students passed state reading tests in 2014. More than three-quarters of white students did so.

The creation of Walker’s office is one response to renewed concern about how far black students – particularly boys – lag behind their white peers, a concern heightened by growing national outrage over the decisions of grand juries not to indict the white police officers involved in killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City.

In the roughly six months since he started, Walker has tried to address the glaring gap while playing a role he didn’t anticipate: comforting and counseling students upset by the decisions in classrooms and on street corners.

“The issue for these young people is they just want to be heard,” Walker said. “They want a place to express their emotions and their feelings. One student (a black male) told me: ‘Wherever we go, we are looked at as monsters.’ ”

Walker, a father of four partial to bow ties and immaculate suits, urges calm and encourages students to stay in school and gain the power to influence laws and policies. He’s become a calming presence at intersections and highways where protesters lie down in streets to show their anger and dismay. And he’s quick with specific advice about what black males should do when stopped by police.

As indignation over the killings grows across the United States, and protests follow, urban school districts will need role models such as Walker, said Christopher Chatmon, an educator who leads the nearly five-year-old Office for African-American Male Achievement in the Oakland Unified School District, in California. Oakland became the first district with an office devoted entirely to improving bleak statistics for black boys, who are as likely to be killed as they are to graduate from high school ready for college.

“I see this as a critical moment, a tipping point for the nation,” said Chatmon, who visited Minneapolis last spring and urged school leaders to support Walker and the new office. “Our president has acknowledged that this nation needs to recalibrate and figure out ways to support boys of color. What better time to introduce this work, now that (protests) are shutting down bridges and closing highways?”

Nationwide, black students are three times more likely to be suspended than white students, according to federal data. That disparity and the lagging performance of African-American boys have become priorities for President Barack Obama, who’s solicited over $200 million in private donations for a series of events, tutoring programs, school discipline restructuring programs and other initiatives around improving their chances and opportunities. His My Brother’s Keeper initiative has since been expanded to include Latino, Native American and Asian-American boys.

Yet uncertainty remains about how much the initiative and, in particular, offices such as Chatmon’s and Walker’s can truly close achievement gaps, warns education professor and researcher Pedro Noguera, the executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at New York University.

“Several districts have created offices like these, and it’s not clear if they will have a positive impact on the broad array of challenges facing black males,” Noguera said. “Ultimately, what matters most is for schools to find ways to improve the learning environment, reduce punitive approaches to school discipline and provide greater social and emotional support. Anything less is just window dressing.”

Walker has a range of ideas and plans, but his office came with a budget of just $200,000 for the first year, largely to explore and identify potential solutions. It won’t pay for the cultural training he wants for teachers, along with a new mentorship and leadership program for students to reduce suspension rates and boost the representation of blacks in advanced placement classes.

He may also be hampered by the abrupt resignation in December of Minneapolis schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, who’d been under fire for slow academic process and high suspension rates but who supported Walker and his office.

Johnson listened intently to Walker during his first report to the Minneapolis school board, in November, when he introduced 17-year-old Shahmar Dennis, a high school senior who said he was living proof of the disdain that young African-American males feel is part of their destiny in the public schools here.

Dennis told the board he’s tired of overcoming the stereotypes of African-American males that have dogged him throughout his childhood, such as: “They are dumb, they swear a lot, they have to be part of the game, they aren’t interested in school, that’s why they sag their pants,’’ he said. “Many teachers think I fall into that category. I have to work harder to show teachers that I really want to get an education from my class. This should not be the case.”

In Minnesota, it too often is. Dennis, a senior at Roosevelt High School, said he’d been discouraged from taking tougher courses, and he recounted what had happened when he told a physics teacher back in ninth grade that he wanted to enter a tough International Baccalaureate program.

“He gave me the weirdest look,’’ Dennis told the board. “He said, ‘You? You wanted to do the IB program?’ He looked a little bit shocked. I replied yes, and he asked again, ‘YOU want to do this?’ I replied yes again, getting a little annoyed.”

What Dennis and others are up against in changing those perceptions: Although the state has made some progress in narrowing the achievement gap on national assessments in recent years, black students still face daunting odds. For example, in 2014, just 24 percent of black students passed the state’s science exam, while 61 percent of white student did.

Walker hopes his presence in the district and the existence of his office make a statement that such treatment is unacceptable. At November’s board meeting, he also had at his side a woman whose son was suspended in 10th grade who’d learned about Walker’s office, called him and filled him in on the situation. Walker returned the call and explained suspension policies.

For Walker, support from the community, as well as a new board and superintendent, will be key, as will raising additional money that the cash-strapped district doesn’t have. While he isn’t promising to solve the achievement gap, he thinks public awareness of his mission is a crucial first step for Minneapolis – and the country.

“I look at my role as a coach who has to create a team of key stakeholders,’’ he said. “Everyone has a part to play. It can’t be just Michael Walker making this happen.”