New office aims to zap the gap in Minneapolis public schools

  • Article by: ALEJANDRA MATOS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 28, 2014 - 5:38 AM

Director of new office takes his high-profile challenge to the streets.

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Michael Walker, who said his first job is to listen, made a stop at All Hair Cuts & Styling in Minneapolis to get parental input.

Photo: GLEN STUBBE • gstubbe@startribune.com,

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Minneapolis public school officials are taking direct aim at their lowest performing students by hiring a leader whose sole job is to elevate the achievement of black males.

A former basketball coach and assistant principal, Michael Walker is determined to build credibility slowly before rolling out a plan as the new head of the Office of Black Male Student Achievement.

“Too often we come up with these ideas and programs that we think will be beneficial, and we haven’t really listened to the community,” Walker said.

Minneapolis’ new office targeting black students is among the first in the nation aimed exclusively at eliminating the achievement gap, increasing GPAs and improving graduation rates for black male students.

Across the country, school districts — and even the White House — are designing initiatives to provide black males with mentors, more targeted instruction and support groups outside of the classroom. The goal is to increase graduation rates and college readiness among a population that has historically lagged badly, particularly in Minneapolis.

“This office is long overdue,” said district CEO Michael Goar.

Walker is jumping into a daunting and high-profile challenge. For the 2013-14 school year, black male reading levels were 53 points lower than those of white students. Suspensions were eight times greater and graduation rates were 30 points lower than those of white students, district data shows.

District leaders have warned Walker that his work will not be easy. A lack of focus and institutionalized racism, they say, runs deep in the district.

Even before Walker was hired, some community leaders and board members slammed the superintendent for allocating only $200,000 for the office.

The African American Leadership Forum in Minneapolis wrote a letter to Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson calling the district’s financial commitment “shameful.”

“If a budget is a moral document to express an institution’s values, we fear Minneapolis public schools has yet to adequately value the lives of black male students,” the letter stated.

At a recent board meeting, Tracine Asberry, a school board member, said she was disappointed that the office lacked a clear vision.

“I have seen and heard these promises,” Asberry said in an interview. “It’s long overdue, and when we do something we cannot move at a snail’s pace anymore. We have to move with urgency.”

Asberry said she fully supports Walker and his work, but is concerned that district leadership did not demonstrate “high expectations and high support.”

Johnson, concerned about stubborn disparities in Minneapolis public schools that go back decades, said she had been thinking about starting the office for more than five years. She decided it was time to do something bold.

Johnson said she is committed to providing more resources for the office once Walker’s plan takes shape. About half of the initial $200,000 will go toward Walker’s salary and benefits.

Modeled after Oakland

Minneapolis modeled its office after a similar one in Oakland, Calif., which was the first in the country. In the four years that it has been in place, suspensions for black males were cut in half and graduation rates increased 10 percent, district officials say.

  • Office of Black Male Student Achievement

    closing the gap

    Michael Walker, director of Black Male Student Achievement for Minneapolis schools, aims to:

    • Increase GPAs

    • Listen to the community

    • Reduce suspensions

    • Boost graduation rates

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