By Charles Hallman
Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) now has in place their new office that will specifically look at Black male student achievement. Michael Walker, a longtime district employee and most recently Roosevelt High School assistant principal, was selected as the first director of the district’s Office of Black Male Student Achievement. He begins work July 28.
The district’s Black males are “a very narrow group,” admits MPS CEO Michael Goar when oft-asked why this student population is receiving so much focused attention. Eliminating the achievement gap between Black males and their MPS peers has presented “persistent challenges for the community” as well for the district, stated Goar.
“There is a major structural barrier that exists for some of our youth, not just in education but also in our social issues that we are struggling with in the city of Minneapolis. We have to have a holistic approach to looking at the achievement gap. It is a very complicated process that requires a multitude of stakeholders at the table connecting with us in this particular work.”
Since announcing plans earlier this year for the office, which is based on a similar program in the Oakland, Calif. school district, Goar said that he was looking for “the right leader and not just a person who can just do the work. We wanted a person who fundamentally understands the fabric of our community and understands the issues of our youth as well.
“We’ve very pleased that we found in Michael a strong leader and a strong vision that understands the challenges of our youth in our community, especially in North Minneapolis,” stated Goar.
“I always wanted to give back to the community,” says Walker, a Minneapolis native who spoke exclusively to the MSR on Monday. He remembers when he and others he grew up with encountered mentors “throughout our paths that connected with us, put us on that right path and showed us the way, and taught us some things here and there to make sure that we were focusing on the right things as young men.
“With me growing up in the city, and knowing the lay of the land, I think that gives a little leg up verses some other folk who just come in for a position like this. I have connections with community folk… I’m visible in North Minneapolis and South Minneapolis all the time, so these young folk see me all the time.
“I’m in all different places — in the grocery stores and in the parks. I volunteer and coach AAU basketball. I’m out and about all the time, talking and seeing these young men.”
Walker’s extensive youth development experience includes work as a career and college coordinator for AchieveMpls (2006-2009) and as community outreach, program and youth development director at the Greater St. Paul and Minneapolis YMCA (1998-2006). He was later hired as dean of students (2009-2011) and assistant principal at Roosevelt (2009 to present). Also a Roosevelt graduate, he has a physical education degree from Southwest Minnesota State and a master’s degree in education from Wisconsin-River Falls.
In his new role, Walker says he will avoid using the “preaching down” approach in his new job. “That’s not the approach I’ve used in everything I’ve done,” he says. “I’ve always walked alongside folk I’m working with because I am learning just as much from them as they are going to learn from me.”
Goar says that the district also is exploring ways on how to connect with President Barack Obama’s new “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative that he unveiled in February. MPS Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson earlier this week was among over 60 school district leaders from around the country at a town hall in Washington, D.C. where the president took questions from D.C.-area youth and spoke on his administration’s efforts to address present issues facing youth, especially Black males.
“We are extensively involved” with Obama’s program, says Goar. “There is a network of folk who are looking at this issue because this whole issue of a student [achievement] gap is not the city of Minneapolis or Minneapolis Public Schools. It’s a national phenomenon, especially in urban school districts.”
The district CEO also says that the new program hopes to improve community engagement. “We have to do a better job as a district to better engage with our community and community stakeholders. They need to be part of our solution as well as being our advocates for changes that we need to make sure takes place.”
Walker says that among his first community engagement tasks upon assuming his new duties will be listening to folk. “I’m going out and listen to find out what’s going on in the community, and what some of the things they need are. We want to get a panoramic-view perspective of what’s going on out there, and that’s connecting with those big stakeholders — the community, the educators, [and] small grassroots organizations.
“The one key we want to make sure that we focus on,” continues the new director “is the young men. I want to listen to those guys as well. We need to get an understanding of what they need.
“If we are not talking to those young boys, how will we know what we are doing is right? How do we know what we are doing is something they are asking for? One of the key components is to talk to those young men to find out what it is they need in order to be successful, and let them determine what that success means.”
Goar pointed out that additional staff may be hired for Walker’s office “on an as-needed basis. “It’s not necessarily adding people, but we can also reallocate and realign existing resources. I think the advantage that Michael will have coming on board…connected to my office is that we have all the district resources” to tap. It won’t be Michael by himself doing the work.”
Finally, Goar said the new office reaffirms MPS’s commitment to all students. “We are looking forward to Michael starting next week.”
“Our young men are in need of much needed support,” concludes Walker. “It’s always about working with youth and giving back to the community.”
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