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.

Chris Chatmon, executive director of the Oakland office, said they created the Manhood Development Program, a mentorship program and a class in numerous schools designed to convince black males that they matter.

For one period, the students read black literature and learned how to tie a necktie. They were not allowed to use the N-word and disciplinary action entailed dozens of pushups or essays.

For those who participated in the program, graduation rates, GPAs and test scores increased dramatically and suspensions were virtually eliminated.

Although his office has a budget of about $1.2 million, Chatmon said it is almost all funded by outside donations.

The other challenge for Chatmon is ensuring that the program continues to be a priority for the district. He’s on his third superintendent in five years.

“Every time I have a new superintendent, my role has changed,” Chatmon said. “I went from being a department head to a department within a department.”

Of his earlier administrative power that came with being a department head, “I no longer have that.”

Barbershops and churches

After meeting with residents, Walker intends to begin formulating a plan. On a dry-erase board in his office, Walker had drawn a basketball court with his ideas. First quarter: listening. Second quarter: strategy development. Third quarter: implementation. Fourth quarter: measure goals and recalibrate.

His biggest obstacle, he said, will be convincing the young students that they can achieve their goals.

“They don’t feel valued,” Walker said. “Their confidence level is low.”

For now, Walker is trying to immerse himself in the problem. He is not waiting for parents to come to him; instead, he is going directly to them.

He spoke to two men Friday who were getting their haircut at All Hair Cuts & Styling in southeast Minneapolis.

“Why was your child successful in Minneapolis schools?” Walker asked.

Kevin Jones, the shop owner, said he didn’t think his son was as successful in school as he could have been. Part of the problem, Jones said, was that the teacher would not call and tell him his son was having problems in the classroom.

“So, you want instant parent communication?” Walker asked.

“Exactly,” Jones said.

Jones recommended that Walker not limit himself to talking to parents at the events he has organized.

“Step outside that box, and go to the street level and ask them what they are doing with their kids,” Jones told Walker. “You’re going to have to knock on doors.”