MINNEAPOLIS – When Roy Jones set out to convince African-American boys that “teacher” was as hot a career goal as “athlete” or “musician,” lots of people thought it was a noble idea that probably wouldn’t go very far.
Jones didn’t blame the doubters: “We were talking about recruiting 18-year-old black males to be third-grade teachers.”
African-American men made up less than 1 percent of the K-12 teacher corps in his home state of South Carolina. The shortage was particularly acute in the elementary classrooms where that gap first appears. Indeed, the number of black men in prison drastically outnumbered those at the head of classrooms.
Ten years later Jones is delighted to have proven the skeptics wrong.
“Despite all the competition and distraction” for the young men’s attention, he said in an interview last week, “we found that when we began to sound the alarm and developed recruiting strategies we found that a number of males wanted to go to college and loved the idea of becoming teachers.”
In fact, from its inception Jones’ Call Me MISTER Initiative has had to wait-list students. “We started at ground zero,” he said. “In the four years since then we have been graduating students literally every semester.”
Keynote at Social Justice Symposium
Jones was in St. Paul this week to deliver the keynote address at St. Catherine University’s 2010 Social Justice Symposium. His message is highly relevant to Minnesota’s education experience. According to a 2009 survey by the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership [PDF], only 3.3 percent of Minnesota teachers are racial or ethnic minorities. Three-fourths of pupils in Minneapolis and St. Paul schools are students of color or Native Americans, but just 16 percent of teachers are.
The problem has only been exacerbated by the fact that minority teachers in those districts have been laid off in disproportionate numbers over the last seven years. Increasing minority recruitment and retention has been a simmering undercurrent within the debate over reforming the traditional union seniority system in urban schools.
Jones’ opinion: “It’s a matter of will. We’ve got to drop the excuses.”
Catching on elsewhere
Not only is Jones on track to double the number of African-American men teaching in K-12 schools in South Carolina, his approach to recruiting young men from struggling schools, retaining them through college and beyond and eventually returning them to disadvantaged classrooms has caught on at a national level.
Headquartered at Clemson University’s Eugene T. Moore School of Education, Call Me MISTER is less a program than a transformative framework for looking at education. Unlike role-modeling, where a successful adult is placed before young people in the hope they will see themselves, MISTER focuses on mentoring.
As Jones describes the approach, mentors help young people identify their own unique strengths and empower them to fashion a life that best takes advantage of their talents and character.
“What we really teach is developing the right mentality, the right disposition to make a difference in your community,” said Jones. “It’s a natural inclination, but it’s not normally associated with black kids, especially black males.”
Call Me MISTER’s students attend 13 two- and four-year colleges in South Carolina and five elsewhere: Eastern Kentucky University; Cheyney University in Pennsylvania; Longwood University in Virginia; and Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City, Mo. In Florida, the existence of the program at the North East Florida Educational Consortium helped that state win a federal Race to the Top education grant.
Intensive social and academic support
Students get tuition assistance, but they also get intensive social and academic support at every stage of their teacher preparation. Recruited in cohorts of five to seven, they live and attend classes together and participate in internships and service-learning initiatives. “The emphasis is on developing each individual MISTER into an effective person, not just an effective teacher,” St. Kate’s materials on Jones’ visit explain.
When they return to the classroom as teachers, graduates — who refer to themselves as MISTERs — also mentor future cohorts.
The initiative has already increased the number of African-American men teaching in South Carolina by 60, or 25 percent. When the 150 students currently in MISTER’s pipeline there graduate, the number will have doubled.
Perhaps MISTER’s biggest success is its promise for replication elsewhere. Efforts outside South Carolina are ramping up just as quickly, said Jones; many are branching out to recruit other minorities and women of color.
“It’s the most successful program in the country,” he said. “We get constant inquiries but we’re being very strategic because of human resources.”
Athletics is ‘a perfect example’
Recruiting is far from MISTER’s biggest challenge. Its leaders borrow heavily from the strategies used by another pipeline more frequently associated with young black men.
“I often use athletics as a perfect example,” Jones explained. “There never seems to be a problem finding a black male to play point guard or running back.
“Identification and recruitment starts early,” he added. “Anyone who has any talent at all is identified early. They have options by the time they get their diplomas — the question is just where are they going to go?”
MISTER’s leaders spend a lot of time in churches and community organizations as well as schools, looking for prospective teachers in the making.
“Are you a big brother or sister who helps with homework?” Jones said they will ask. “Do you volunteer to do things? Attend Sunday school or camps? Couple that with being on the right academic track, add a little scholarship money and suddenly you have a recruit.”
Once one kid has admitted aspiring to be a schoolteacher, others start to find the idea cool, he concluded: “You can be great and teach third grade.”
Beth Hawkins reports on education for MinnPost, where she writes the Learning Curve blog.