One of the goals in the ten months since Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) opened its new Black Male Student Achievement office was to “change the dynamics,” especially how Black male students are seen by others and by themselves, said its director.
The May 27 “Believe and Achieve Celebration” held at St. Mary’s University Event Center in South Minneapolis, was fully attended by “kings,” “queens,” their parents, teachers, school and district officials.
“What we have been taught is that our ancestors are slaves…[but] that [is] not the beginning of us,” explained Michael Walker, the office’s director in a MSR interview after the event. “We were the creators of knowledge, and built the pyramids and so forth. The key to this is showing them why they’re kings and queens.
“We are trying to change that dynamic, that narrative to let them know that you come from greatness,” continued Walker. “It’s making sure that we [as adults] continue using this language – it’s new to us as well. I’m also getting used to using that language.”
“When they start to use it, they will start to live it,” contends Walker. “These young people eventually will become parents and adults, and help teach the next generation.”
Since its creation, the MPS Black Male Achievement office has primarily focused on increasing attendance and graduation rates among MPS Black male students that historically have been almost a third lower than White students. Likewise, suspensions have been at least eight times greater for Black males.
Walker told the audience Wednesday, “It’s going to take a team effort,” including parents, school and district staff and community members, “and the kids themselves to be successful.” He reported the first-year success of the Black Lives Acquiring Cultural Knowledge (B.L.A.C.K.) program, launched this year in four MPS schools. Participants meet once a week with district and community facilitators.
Walker told the MSR that B.L.A.C.K. is “more about positive affirmation using positive language…It’s making sure that we [as adults] continue using this language — it’s new to us as well. I’m also getting used to using that language. We’re learning and growing together.”
South High junior Payton Bowdry gave the program an “A-plus.” He admitted that at first being called a “king” felt unfamiliar. “You only hear it when you’re playing cards. But being referred [to] as kings, it builds confidence in me. “I’m glad to be a part of this group,” said Bowdry. “We also learned from each other…how to be responsible to each other within the group and outside the classroom. I’d wished it had started earlier but I’m glad it’s here.”
“We are more than just African American males or just some Black boys. We have a meaning to our names, and a meaning to our color,” added Nellie Stone Johnson, eighth-grader Glenn Carter. He and Bowdry served as co-masters of ceremony at Wednesday’s event.
“I hope to contribute to the rest of my success in college,” said Isaiah Brown, who will graduate from South High in a few days and plans to study civil engineering at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln this fall. He was among nine seniors who were awarded $500 B.L.A.C.K. scholarships.
Despite reported budget cuts that will affect MPS programs, Minneapolis School Board Vice Chair Kim Ellison told the MSR that funding for the Black Male Student Achievement Office will not be affected as a result. “The Office of Black Male Achievement is there,” she reiterated. “I am so excited with this office.”
Moving forward, Walker reports that his office is working with the University of Minnesota to create a more specific curriculum for the B.L.A.C.K. program. “That is going to be really important because I want to make sure that we have this class, not just one day a week but five days a week,” he said. “If they get this five days a week, we are going to build on what we started.”
Several Black MPS students will also be working in Walker’s office this summer as part of the City of Minneapolis’ STEP-UP youth job program. “Their task is going to be planning events and supporting us in curriculum. I want to make sure that we are hearing them in what they need, and what support they need so we can focus and tailor curriculum to that.”
Finally, the MPS “kings” will be “in the forefront of everything we do” with his office, concluded Walker. “They have a voice in everything that we do.”
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Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.