A comprehensive approach to improving black male achievement

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 25, 2014 - 6:45 PM

The group is most at risk, and Minneapolis is acting accordingly.

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Young African-American men listened intently as President Obama spoke at a “town hall meeting” about the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative at the Walker Jones Education Campus in Washington in July. Obama announced that leaders of 60 of the largest school systems have pledged to expand minority boys’ access to better preschools and advanced classes and to try to prevent grade retention, suspensions and expulsions.

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When it comes to learning gaps, statistics tell a big part of the story. On just about every measure of Minneapolis school performance, young African-American males are at or near the bottom of the list — with the lowest grades and test scores of any student population. At the same time, black boys have the highest rates of suspension, expulsion, absenteeism and special-education referrals.

Though that’s not new information, district leaders are developing a new approach to changing outcomes. They are facing facts about exactly which students need the most help and are targeting resources accordingly. The numbers clearly show that narrowing the learning disparities of this population alone will go a long way toward closing racial learning differences overall.

That’s why the administration created the Office of Black Male Achievement — and why the effort holds promise and deserves support. Beginning this school year, the district is putting special emphasis on better understanding the problems of young black males and ways to address them. Leading that effort is Michael Walker, a longtime youth worker and former assistant principal. Walker, an African-American, is also a Minneapolis native and graduate of the city’s public school system who is personally and professionally knowledgeable about the experiences of local black boys and teens.

Walker’s goals are to reduce chronic absenteeism, lower disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates, raise graduation rates, and get more black males into Advanced Placement and honors classes. During August, Walker held several listening sessions at barbershops and other places where young males gather. He also held similar sessions at schools to get community input.

During an interview, Walker said that one thing he hears over and over from kids is that they “don’t feel valued.’’ The former athlete and coach wants to change how young black men view themselves. And that will take a citywide, full-community effort.

A start-up budget of $200,000 has been allocated to establish the department. It is anticipated that additional funds will be reallocated or raised to support its continuing work.

Earlier this year, President Obama acknowledged that focusing on young black males is essential to narrowing persistent learning gaps. In February, he launched a new federal initiative to address improving the educational and economic status of young black and Hispanic men. The president called their situation a “moral issue for our country’’ that Americans can no longer afford to ignore.

Some critics have pushed back against the idea, even calling it racial profiling. But there is universal agreement that continuing racial achievement disparities are unacceptable. That is good reason to be more aggressive and intentional about accelerating the growth of students who are years behind their peers.

Targeting specific groups for assistance is not unusual. Currently, various departments address the needs of lower-performing kids in special education, American Indian and English language learning programs.

And similar efforts around the nation are gaining momentum. Through a Council of Great City Schools effort in response to Obama’s call, about 60 urban schools have agreed to carry out specific actions to uplift young men of color.

Here’s another reason why changing the trajectory of young black males is worthy of investment. That trajectory, once established, often continues through their adult lives. School failure can put them in the pipeline to prison and lifelong involvement with law enforcement, justice, corrections and social-service agencies.

Getting this right in elementary and secondary school isn’t just the right thing to do. It is also more cost-effective and beneficial to society to educate youths who will become productive, contributing adults.

  • WHY IT MATTERS

    These [African-American] boys are a growing segment of our population. They are our future workforce. When … they lag behind, our economy suffers. Our family structure suffers. Our civic life suffers. Cycles of hopelessness breed violence and mistrust. And our country is a little less than what we know it can be. So we need to change the statistics — not just for the sake of the young men and boys, but for the sake of America’s future.’’

    President Obama in February, while announcing the federal “My Brother’s Keeper’’ Initiative

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