MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. – Michael Walker stood in front of the nine-member Minneapolis school board on a recent snowy night and told them 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 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 last year, 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, Missouri 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 protestors 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 a cop.
As indignation over the killings grows across the U.S., and protests follow, urban school districts will need role models like Walker, said Christopher Chatmon, the 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 federal data. That disparity and the lagging performance of African-American boys have become priorities for President Barack Obama, who has solicited over $200 million in private donations for a series of events, tutoring programs, school discipline reform programs and other initiatives around improving their life 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 like 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 representation of blacks in advanced placement classes.
He may also be hampered by the abrupt resignation earlier this month of Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, who had 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 is living proof of the disdain young African-American males feel is part of their destiny in the public schools here.
Dennis told the board he’s tired of overcoming 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. 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 — a gulf of 37 percentage points.
Dennis, a senior at Roosevelt High School, said he’d been discouraged from taking tougher courses and recounted what 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.”
Ultimately, Dennis gave up and decided to ask someone else; he got into the program and is doing well. The incident still rankles him, though.
“I’m not trying to say the teacher was racist, but people do have a stigma based on race,’’ Dennis said. “And that wasn’t my first incident. It happened to me on numerous occasions.”
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 mother whose son was suspended in 10th grade and who said she didn’t know how to approach school officials. She learned about Walker’s office, called him and explained the situation. Walker returned the call and walked her through the process, step by step.
Racial disparity in suspensions has been a key issue in Minneapolis, and the subject of a federal inquiry and subsequent agreement with federal civil rights officials. Black students in the district received more than 60 percent of the in-school suspensions, more than 78 percent of the out-of-school suspensions and more than 69 percent of the referrals to law enforcement in the 2011-12 school year. Statewide, black students in 2012-2013 received nearly 40 percent of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions.
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 is not promising to solve the achievement gap, he believes public awareness of his mission is a critical 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.”