Mentors, new programs part of plan to ‘normalize success’
By Charles Hallman
An estimated 80 local Black men met with Black male students last Friday morning as part of the 100 Strong Who Care mentoring program that Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) Equity Director James Burroughs started about five years ago. He told the students before they met with the men in small groups, “We want to let the world and Minneapolis know that Black men do care about our young Black men.”
Northside Achievement Zone Family Academy Director Andre Dukes told the students they all were born “with a destiny” for success. “You are not a mistake. You are not an accident,” he assured them.
“The sooner you make up your minds to reach your goals and live out your destiny, the better off your life will be. It is your birthright to be successful,” Dukes said.
The district’s new student achievement office (reported March 27 in the MSR) is expected to open at the start of the 2014-15 school year, said Burroughs, adding that beforehand the district will hold community meetings.
“We don’t want to create something that is only our vision internally. We want to hear from our parents and community on what we can do better with our Black males.”
Patrick Henry High School in Minneapolis has a reputation for high academic achievement, but historically the school’s Black male students have lagged far behind in this area. Fourth-year Principal Latanya Daniels sat down with the MSR and briefly explained the reasons why more Black males aren’t doing well at her school.
“When we did our consensus workshop, the boys said they owned that they could go to bed earlier or that they need to do [their] homework. They owned and took responsibility for the need to pay attention during class. They owned that they need to talk less in class. Those are things during the school day they know they can control, and some of them might not have been controlling their behaviors.
“[But] there are some institutional factors involved,” continued the Henry principal. “We really need to do a better job building relationships with our African American male students. There’s a big disconnect in what we are doing and what is actually happening.”
As a result, an African American Achievement Task Force, composed of Daniels, Crystal Ballard, who is doing her principal internship at Henry, teachers, counselors, social workers and other staff volunteers, was started this school year and meets weekly to discuss strategies to help improve outcomes for Black male ninth graders.
Asked if there was any resistance among Henry faculty and staff to the new focus, Daniels said, “We had a segment of the staff that was excited on moving in this direction. We had a segment that overtly shared their concerns, and some went underground. Because we have a large Hmong population, some people [ask] why we are not focusing on Hmong boys as well.”
The principal added that aggregate data showed that Black males were five times more off track to graduate than their Hmong counterparts. “I wanted to make it clear that we were not doing this because I am a Black woman,” continued Daniels. “I just used the data — the referral data, suspension data, all of the data — that disproportionally shows our African American [students]…and let the numbers talk. We are doing this work
because our data shows that we need it.”
Among the goals Henry wants to achieve is a 20 percent decrease in Black student referrals and reducing Black male suspensions by 15 percent. Also, new programs such as Operation 4.0, an after-school homework-help center for Black ninth graders available Monday through Thursday, began last December.
Working to improve Black male student achievement “must be embedded into our school culture. We need to be very intentional,” added Henry principal intern and task force leader Ballard.
Chris Chatmon, the executive director of the Oakland, CA school district Black male achievement department, was in town last week, invited by the MPS, who is planning to open a similar office this fall. Chatmon met and advised district officials “to not put something out there and not be committed to doing what we all need to do. I applaud the effort, but now let’s put together the plan and identify the funding. It can’t be just talk.”
“He [Chatmon] said on several occasions [throughout his three-day visit] that we have what it takes as far as the infrastructure and the people to get this started right now,” reported Burroughs.
Chatmon also spent a half-day at Henry visiting classrooms and meeting with Henry students and staff. During his meeting with Daniels, Ballard, and task force members, Chatmon said that his current office was started in 2010 because the district Black males were “dead last” in nearly every category.
“This is not just in Oakland — this is a national issue,” he pointed out. “We have normalized failure of Black children, where Black children actually have internalized oppression. We have to change from normalizing failure to normalizing success,” he suggested.
Chatmon later told the MSR that education should be aligned with “the experiences of our children, making them feel esteemed and welcomed,” and that a school system should be “a healthy, thriving eco-system.” He also advises teachers “to take the time to get to know your children and where they are coming from and what they have to navigate and have access to. That insight actually gives you as a teacher important information to create a classroom environment and identify the support that allows that student to be successful.”
“The meeting with Chris definitely confirmed that the work that we’ve done on the task force to try to put systems in place, we have to take it to another level next [school] year in engaging our whole staff in improving academic achievement,” said Daniels. “It is going to take a community and a concerted effort in order for that success to come to fruition.”
After the Friday morning 100 Strong Who Care event, Burroughs said, “I’m excited because we have this number of African American men together… All of these brothers agreed to come back and be supportive of these youngsters.”
Daniels reiterated, “We don’t plan to have this just one time [and] then it goes away. We plan on our boys engaging with great men, influential men from the community that look like them, throughout the rest of the school year and throughout their educational process here at Patrick Henry.”
Finally, Daniels says she and her faculty and staff are committed to improving Black student achievement at Henry High School, especially its Black males. “Last year it was difficult for people to accept the fact that we were going to deal with African American males. But since we have done it for a year, they have accepted the fact that this is an initiative that this administration and this leadership have brought to this building, and it is not going away.”