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JACKSON, Miss. – Like the billion locusts that emerge every 17 years to descend on the Northeast, sometimes the thing we call news has a remarkably simple basis: We cover it because it’s rare. Uncommon.
So when a critical mass of the nation’s foremost experts on educating black boys gathered in Jackson last month to hobnob, commiserate and impart their latest findings on how to get positive outcomes with this much-maligned population, it had the breathtaking impact of the locusts.
This had never before happened in Mississippi, a state with the highest rate of childhood poverty in the country, a legacy of racism and segregation and some of the nation’s lowest performing students.
Yet there they were, more than 600 of these experts, from 33 states and more than 200 school districts, sitting in classrooms and auditoriums at Jackson State University, intensely focused on workshops with titles like “Cultural Competence for Educators: Advancing development of boys and young men of color.”
They had come for the 8th annual conference of an organization called Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color, known in the trade as Coseboc (pronounced like “close block” without the L’s). Over the last decade, Coseboc has become known as the nation’s leading repository for research and practices that work best in educating black boys, and the crowd at Jackson state was the largest Coseboc has drawn in the eight years of the conference.
Coseboc, led by executive director Ron Walker, cleverly published its own “standards,” which are essentially guidelines for schools and everybody else to use in determining whether educators are doing right by boys of color. Developed in conjunction with the Metro Center at New York University, the standards include parameters to assess how well schools are doing with black boys in standardized test preparation, availability of gifted programs/advanced placement classes, culturally relevant instruction, high school curriculum and its relevance to college enrollment requirements, along with such areas as attentiveness of school counselors and whether students are given a voice in the school.
With the standards, Coseboc has handed a powerful tool to those parents and communities who have long sensed their schools are not effectively attending to the needs of black boys.
And so for educators or researchers with something to say (or learn) about the education of black boys, Coseboc is Mecca; an inspiring gathering, a conference that leaves you uplifted and understanding that the plight of black boys is not hopeless.
But what does all this have to do with Mississippi? Once it was over and the experts packed up their briefcases and headed back to Jackson-Evers International, whither black boys in Mississippi? Would there be a long-lasting impact on the state, or was the Coseboc conference just Jackson’s version of hosting the Super Bowl—after the crowds are gone and the excitement has waned, all that’s left is a lot of trash to pick up?
It’s a question that can only be answered by time. But the conference planners, those who decided it was a bold idea to bring such a gathering to Mississippi, believe they got a glimpse into the Magnolia State’s future. And what they saw gave them reason for optimism. All you had to do was check the thrilled grin on the face of Rhea Williams-Bishop, the woman responsible for bringing Coseboc to Mississippi.
“This is the first time this conversation has happened on a broad scale in the state of Mississippi,” Williams-Bishop told me excitedly. Williams-Bishop is executive director of the Mississippi Center for Education Innovation, a six-year-old nonprofit committed to improving Mississippi’s dismal education performance.
“We have not had much experience in turning around schools,” she admitted. “We haven’t had much experience specifying what needs to be done, or even talking about what needs to be done for young men and boys of color. No one in the state department or the local districts historically has monitored how boys of color are doing. That’s just not happening.”
The answer is not very well. Across the state – as well as in the U.S. – black boys are far more likely to be represented in special education. In science, another area where the state’s black children lag behind, just 36 percent of black students tested proficient or above on state science tests last year, compared with 72 percent of white students. Black students accounted for a third of all Mississippi public-school students who took a college-level Advanced Placement (AP) science exam during the 2011-12 school year, but just six percent of those who achieved a passing score.
Williams-Bishop wanted to see what would happen if Mississippi at least started having the conversation about the plight of black boys. Perhaps the words could start transforming into deeds.
“Every meeting we go to, people are talking about problems, they’re quoting the negative statistics,” Williams-Bishop said. “But there are very few occasions in Mississippi where people are willing to find folk who are trying to solve the problem. That’s why we wanted to pursue hosting the gathering.”
MSCEI’s goal was to bring at least 100 Mississippi educators who could absorb the scholarship swirling around the room and come back with research and methods to start improving outcomes for black boys in their schools and districts. They far exceeded that goal with 150 conference attendees.
“We were able to give them exposure to other folks who have done it differently,” Williams-Bishop said. “If you can’t see it, it’s hard to do it. If you haven’t had specific training and technical development and interaction with those who have turned around schools or who have figured out a way to provide better educational opportunities to boys and men of color, you can’t do it.”
Walker isn’t fooling himself about what drew so many from around the country. It wasn’t necessarily the prospect of stimulating discussion—it was Mississippi itself.
To many African Americans, there is no scarier boogeyman. With violent movie images and unsettling history lessons still simmering in their heads, these educators were at once frightened and fascinated by what they would find in Jackson. It was like they were boarding a rollercoaster ride with bigotry as the theme.
So with their stomach in knots and their eyes wide, they flocked from places like California, New Jersey, Philadelphia and New York. Many were grown-ups who had never before set a toe in the Deep South. For three days, they stalked the (eerily empty) streets of Jackson and the campus of Jackson State, waiting for the ghosts of hooded night riders to leap from the shadows. In the end, mostly they were surprised by what they didn’t find.
“It’s clear that one of the draws for folks was the mystique,” Walker said. “I would like to think all of them came because of Coseboc, but I know a lot of them came because of Mississippi. Many people came up to me and said, ‘Wow, this is not what I thought it was going to be like.’ They were relieved but excited about having the experience of making that trek to Mississippi, just because of its reputation.”
Perhaps also lured by the symbolism of Mississippi’s dark racist past, President Obama’s White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans decided to hold its second Black Male Summit on the campus of Jackson State immediately after the conclusion of the Coseboc conference. (The first one was held in March at Atlanta’s Morehouse College.) As the White House continues to work out the details and goals of Obama’s much-discussed “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, having the Cosesboc educators all gathered in one place gave White House officials a keen opportunity to figure out how much they can do on behalf of black boys with limited funds at their disposal. (The president’s promise of $250 million to $300 million for the initiative, which would work out to just $5 million to $6 million per state if spread around evenly, is hardly enough to fund a well-equipped community center in each state).
The Experts at Work
Howard Stevenson is a professor in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania whose area of specialization is a topic most white educators would probably rather sit for a root canal than confront head-on: How their unwillingness or inability to deal with their own racial biases and stereotypes leads to horrible and stressful interactions with black boys in their classrooms—interactions that can have a devastating effect on the boys’ academic achievement.
For whites and certainly even for African Americans, thinking about, discussing and recounting a racial encounter can be enormously stressful. Stevenson demonstrated by having the participants in his Coseboc workshop pair up and tell each other about any racial incident that came to mind. When asked to share their feelings later, the participants were surprised and alarmed by how much stress they felt during the retelling, almost like they were living through it again.
This story is part of our ongoing coverage of Mississippi and the challenges facing its education system. Some of the latest stories:
It is this stress stemming from racial conflicts with their white teachers that is killing the performance of black boys in school, Stevenson claims — thousands of “micro-aggressions” between teacher and child that the teacher may not even be clued into. And according to Stevenson, it really doesn’t matter what are the teacher’s intentions — it only matters what the student is perceiving are the reasons for the encounter.
Stevenson wants teachers to develop what he calls racial literacy, which means learning how to identify stress in their students and knowing how to recast the moment to bring down the student’s stress level. Stevenson says most of us develop avoidance skills when it comes to racial stress, rather than engagement skills.
“Unresolved trauma is killing black people all over the country,” he said. “We sacrifice healing for the sake of survival all too much, to our detriment.”
He pointed out a study showing that the stereotyping of young black males as threatening is now so ingrained in the American psyche that they are viewed as the same level of threat as spiders and snakes.
Teachers’ lack of racial literacy is why black students are 78 percent more likely to be suspended from school than white students, Stevenson said, noting that “failed bonding” in a teacher’s relationships with boys is one of the best predictors of their level of achievement.
Working with students in Philadelphia, Stevenson has demonstrated how doing things like lightly touching boys, physically mediating their conflicts and slowly building their trust can have an enormous impact on their performance. He explores these issues in his new book, Promoting Racial Literacy in Schools: Differences That Make a Difference (Teachers College Press, 2004).
Eddie Fergus, a professor at New York University who was lead author of the Coseboc standards, has done fascinating work on school factors that produce the highest levels of academic performance in black boys. His findings come from a three-year study of seven single-sex schools in New York City, Chicago, Houston and Atlanta that are made up of predominantly black and Latino boys.
In another classroom at Jackson State, Fergus said that in order for the black and brown students at these schools to perform well academically, they first had to have relationships with the adults in the school that feature care and trust.
“In order for them to ‘do’ school, they had to have adult-based relationships around care and trust that mattered to them,” Fergus told the two dozen educators who were hanging on his every word. “They were saying, ‘I can now trust you around my cognitive growth.’ But the relational engagement wasn’t as important for white kids — cognitive engagement was more important to them. They were saying, ‘I have to be interested.’”
Fergus said one of the teachers they studied who got great results with black boys would get down on her knees when they were doing group work so that she would be at their eye level when she talked to them. “The little things mattered in relational building,” he said.
Hayden Frederick-Clarke, a black male educator who works with a large population of young black males at his school in Boston, in his school walked out of Fergus’s presentation shaking his head at the brilliant simplicity of it all.
“That is the entire key to education right there,” he said emphatically. “Basically he’s saying, if these boys don’t think you care about them, they’re not going to learn from you. That says it all.”
Fergus’ findings mirror the conclusions drawn by Christopher Chatmon, executive director of the Oakland school district’s Office for African-American Male Achievement, an innovative office created four years ago by Oakland school superintendent Tony Smith in response to glaring deficiencies in black male performance. When Chatmon studied the teachers who had the best results with black boys, he found it was also the ones who had developed tools to forge positive relationships with them, such as standing out in the hall and greeting them with big smiles as they entered the classroom.
Chatmon and his staff interviewed hundreds of black boys about their school experiences. “Over 80 percent of the brothers said the moment we step onto the school campus, the adults treat us as if we’ve done something bad,” Chatmon told me, “and we haven’t even done anything yet.”
Walker’s Passion for Mississippi
When Rhea Williams-Bishop called Ron Walker a few years back and said she wanted Coseboc to come to Mississippi for its annual conference, he was a bit taken aback. Though for the past couple of decades he has lived in Boston — where Coseboc is headquartered — Walker’s life path actually took a detour through Mississippi when he was a much younger man.
Walker was just 19 and a student at Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University, the first degree-granting historically black college in the United States, when he happened to take a class taught by the civil rights icon James Farmer. It was 1966 and Farmer was taking a break from his work fighting for equal rights in the South with CORE and SNCC. At the end of class one day, Farmer challenged the students to become more involved in the civil rights movement by going to Mississippi to help distribute food to needy families.
“He said, ‘You guys ought to be doing something,’” Walker recalled. The young men wanted to take him up on the challenge, but they were also scared to death.
“On one side of the coin, we wanted to do it, but on the other side of the coin, none of us really wanted to go. There was a lot of trepidation, worry. This was two years after the civil rights workers [James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael “Mickey” Schwerner] had been killed. This was Mississippi we were talking about. So we drew straws. Six of us got the short straws.”
Off they went during Christmas break, headed south in a VW bus they had rented from a friend, carrying about $1,500 they had collected through fundraising events at the school. The VW broke down in Tennessee, but they would not be deterred. They rented a van in Memphis, loaded it up with food Farmer’s contact in Memphis had given them to distribute, and headed for a town called Belzoni, Mississippi.
“It was a frightful experience,” Walker said. “Of the six of us, the oldest might have been 20. All of us were wearing Afros, going someplace we had no clue where, with no idea how to get there. I later found out they called this place ‘Bloody Belzoni’ because they had almost as many bombings as Birmingham. When we got to the Delta, as far as the eye can see we saw flat land and these little shotgun houses. I was a young man from the North, both my parents in the house, with three square meals a day. To see these children and their families with absolutely nothing at Chrismastime, it was the first time I had seen that level of poverty. It took a toll on us. We broke down. I made it back home to Philly and started teaching school, but I always carried that experience with me. I told my mother, who was originally from Alabama, ‘Mom, I’m not going back down there.’”
But yet when he returned almost 50 years later, Walker said he saw a different Mississippi — a place teeming with professionals, black and white, who wanted to move the state and its schools out of the basement so that it was no longer the butt of national jokes.
“When Rhea called me about them hosting the gathering in Mississippi, my first thought was, ‘Why would we want to do that?’” Walker said. “But I thought about it and said, ‘Of course. We need to do it for a lot of reasons.’ We need to do it because of the sacred ground, where people laid down their lives and shed blood. We needed to do it because I needed to shed some of my demons. It was a cathartic experience for me.”
With this year marking the 50th anniversary of Mississippi’s Freedom Summer and the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Walker knew there would be more attention paid to the historical struggles of Mississippi that would bring additional aura to the Coseboc gathering.
“I told them we are calling on you all to sink your feet into the soil, understand what people here had to go through, so it serves as a charge when you go back to your respective cities to know you’ve been to a place where things have really been rough and still are,” Walker said.
Perhaps it’s Mississippi’s history, or maybe it’s the state’s traditional ranking at the absolute bottom on most every measure used in this country to measure student performance outcomes, but outsiders who come to the state are quick to devote themselves to working on Mississippi’s behalf. Walker has developed something he’s calling the “Southern Approach,” focusing on seven states in the South with the highest negative indicators and funneling to them as many Coseboc resources and as much expertise as he can muster—with Mississippi as the hub. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation (disclaimer: the Kellogg Foundation is also among the various supporters of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story) has been generous with grant money to help the effort. Coseboc is even in the process of trying to place a fulltime staff member in Mississippi.
“It’s clear to anyone who’s been watching that this is not just a one-shot deal,” Walker said of the Coseboc conference. “We’ll be back.”
During one of the panel discussions sponsored by the White House after the Coseboc workshops were over, an elderly female school board member from an impoverished community in the Delta trudged to the microphone and asked how school districts like hers were going to benefit after all the talking was over.
Williams-Bishop, who was watching from the audience, understands the sentiment. Mississippians have heard a lot of talk over the years, a lot of promises about funding. But action has been in short supply — as have funds.
“Most districts are crying out for assistance,” she said. In the following months, her organization will try to connect those isolated rural districts with experts and resources all across the country, so they can tap into the compendium of knowledge that was on display at the Coseboc conference about how to lead black children to greater academic achievement. In a state where only 21 percent of fourth-graders scored proficient or advanced on a national reading exam in 2013, the cavalry can’t come soon enough.
“We don’t normally toot our own horn, but if we can do it here, if we can turn things around in Mississippi, in Jackson, we could become a model for the nation in educating young men and boys of color,” Williams-Bishop said. “If that happens, we can create all kinds of economic opportunities not just for them and their families but for the businesses, the local communities and the entire state.”
At a time when districts large and small across the nation are being forced to make brutal cuts to essential services because of severe budget shortfalls, it’s somewhat ironic that some parts of the nation are starting to look more like Mississippi than the other way around. Philadelphia, for instance, has cut so much staff that many schools don’t even have basic services like guidance counselors and school secretaries and class sizes for the coming school year may rise as high as 37 in the early grades and 41 in the high schools.
If Mississippi can find a way to do much with very little, it could become a model for the rest of America: How to thrive on a starvation diet.
From Mississippi’s perspective, when you’re already at the bottom, there’s only one direction to go: Up.
Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author or co-author of 12 books, including the New York Times bestseller, The Rejected Stone: Al Sharpton and the Path to American Leadership.