College & Workforce Readiness

Minneapolis’ Anti-Bias Efforts Focus on Black Males

By Denisa R. Superville — October 27, 2015 6 min read
TARGETED SUPPORT: Michael V. Walker, bottom left, the director of Minneapolis schools' Office of Black Male Student Achievement, greets students before the group heads into a college fair. A growing number of urban districts are creating special offices to address educational disparities.

In a small conference room at a South Minneapolis school, the principal and assistant principal were trying to come up with ways to get a group of eight black boys to be more engaged in school.

The administrators said they were concerned that the 8th graders, whom they described as extremely “smart” and potential “leaders,” were disconnected from their classrooms and did not think it was “cool” to be smart. The administrators wanted to figure out how to get the boys to harness their strengths in a positive way.

They were brainstorming with Michael V. Walker, the director of the Minneapolis school district’s Office of Black Male Student Achievement. As the lead figure in a district effort focused on its 8,963 black boys, Walker has the job ultimately, of helping close the achievement gap between them and their peers. In the 2014-15 school year African-Americans made up 37 percent of the 35,300-student district, Minnesota’s largest.

Michael V. Walker, who directs the Office of Black Male Student Achievement for the Minneapolis public schools, advises students on how to interact with college representatives at a college fair. The district as proposed putting $1.2 million into the office this school year in an effort to bring about better outcomes for its black boys.

In this city, as in many others, the data show the impetus for this effort. On almost every indicator related to school success, black boys are at, or near, the bottom. Nationwide, black boys are more likely than almost any other demographic slice of the school population to be suspended or expelled from school and to score at the lowest achievement level. They are also less likely to take honors classes or go to college.

Thus, Minneapolis is among a growing number of districts looking to right such imbalances by establishing specialized offices or dedicating staff members to work on equity, diversity, and inclusion. Although many districts were already doing that work, President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative has been a galvanizing force for others, said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents the nation’s largest school districts.

The program is focused on improving educational and employment opportunities for boys of color.

Around the Country

The Oakland, Calif., district was among the first to establish an office of African-American male achievement, and its approach is seen as a model. Other efforts to promote equity among diverse groups are also underway in Orange County schools in Orlando, Fla.; in Wake County, N.C.; Beaverton, Ore.; and Virginia Beach, Va., among other locations.

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The Minneapolis district’s office is patterned after Oakland’s. Walker is working here to ensure that students—like the 8th graders who were worrying their school administrators—have positive role models. They and their parents take an active part in their own education. The office is also ensuring that culturally responsive practices are in place in schools, that parents know who to call if issues arise, and that principals who want to develop programs for black students have a ready resource.

The office started last year under former schools chief Bernadeia Johnson, and has continued with her interim successor, Michael Goar. This school year, it has a proposed $1.2 million budget and is partnering with 12 schools, four each at the elementary, middle, and high school levels.

In those schools, teachers are expected to participate in five professional-development sessions, including ones focused on strategies to engage black male students; how to recognize unconscious bias; and how to be connected to the communities in which they teach.

Changing adult behavior is also an important part of Walker’s work. “It’s not about fixing the young people,” he said. “It’s about us [adults] changing the way we go about working with young people; us changing how we go about allowing them to be able to make mistakes, and not let that be the end for them.”

Special Curriculum

At the high school and middle school levels, about 110 students are participating in a class called Building Lives Acquiring Cultural Knowledge (BLACK), a five-day-a-week course where they learn about African-American history, literature, and leadership development. One session a week is spent on tutoring and helping the students with other academic work. Students and instructors are all referred to with the honorific “king.”

The class was developed in conjunction with a professor at the University of Minnesota. The district’s teaching and learning team helped to shape the learning targets for the curriculum.

On a recent day, a group of boys in the class at South High School was preparing for an assignment to interview teachers about their expectations and perceptions of black boys. In a middle school class, students were working on autobiographical essays.

The classes are taught by two black “community experts,” a special designation given by the Minnesota Board of Teaching for individuals who are not traditional educators. Having the classes taught by African-American men, Walker said, allows black boys to see teaching as something to which they can aspire, and nonblack students get to see black men in a professional setting.

Simultaneously, the district is working to cut discipline rates. Last year, it entered into a voluntary agreement with the office for civil rights in the U.S. Department of Education over disparities in how it disciplines black students. According to the OCR, black students made up about 40 percent of the district’s enrollment in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years, but accounted for 74 percent of recorded disciplinary incidents and 78 percent of out-of-school suspensions. There were also disparities in how black and white students were punished for the same infractions.

In September, the district announced that it would eliminate suspensions for students in 1st through 5th grades. Last year, it officially ended suspensions for pre-K-1 students who got into trouble for nonviolent infractions, but the Minneapolis Star Tribune found additional incidents in which such children were sent home. A principal on special assignment is also working with teachers on strategies to reduce discipline referrals.

“We think it’s important to recognize that [inequity] exists, and begin to acknowledge it, and begin to tackle that issue directly, and that’s why we created Michael’s office: to acknowledge it, and also give opportunities to talk about the positive things about our black males,” said Goar. “Because the narrative is singular in nature, which is, if you are a black boy, you are going to go to jail, you’re going to fail, or you’re going to get suspended. We want to change the narrative.”

For Walker, the job was a natural fit. An assistant principal upon his appointment, he had developed programs for at-risk young people as the youth-development director at the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities. He spent the first days on the job asking the community—people at barbershops, hair salons, and malls—about their experiences with the school system and what they wanted from the office.

What he heard was that black boys felt there was a double standard in how they were disciplined at school. They spoke about racism and stereotypes, and that they felt that some teachers didn’t expect much from them. Parents told him they did not think educators were fair when dealing with black boys. Educators didn’t believe they had all the tools necessary to help black boys to be successful, he said.

There are not a lot of data yet to show if the programs are working, Walker said. Anecdotally, he points to a drop in disciplinary incidents, increased attendance, and positive engagement for the students who participated in a pilot of the BLACK classes last year.

Helen Hunter, a single mother of four, said that she appreciates what the classes are doing to help her two boys, Glen, 14, and Glentrel, 13.

Given the grim statistics for black students, programs specifically aimed at “balancing the scale for African-American children” were overdue, she said. “There was nothing celebrating what they were doing, but so many things looking at what they were not doing,” she said.

For his part, Glentrel said his “kings” looked out for him. They worked together in groups, encouraged each other to do homework, attend classes, and stay on task, and called out each other on behaviors they thought were unbecoming.

“Hopefully, we’ll see some results,” said Walker. “We’ll see it getting better. We’ll see it changing.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 28, 2015 edition of Education Week as In Minneapolis, a Targeted Effort to Bolster Black Boys

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