Signs of progress: Mpls. office focused on black males in school is making an impact

Michael Waker, the director of the Office of Black Male Student Achievement in Minneapolis Public Schools.

AS A GROUP, black male students in Minneapolis Public Schools have struggled with multiple things: Graduation rates, test scores, attendance and suspensions among them.

To address those issues, the school district created the Office of Black Male Student Achievement, which is among the first of its kind in the nation. Almost two years into its efforts to increase achieve­ment of one of the lowest perform­ing groups of students, officials say they’re starting to see progress.

Students’ GPAs are rising, they are engaged in class and they see the importance of education and their future, according to Michael Walker, the director of the office.

But Walker said there’s still more work to be done.

“This walk is going to take some time,” Walker said. “We didn’t get into this situation overnight so we’re not going to get out of it overnight.”

The Office of Black Male Student Achievement is located in the district office in Minneapolis, how­ever, Walker says he is rarely there. He prefers to work in classrooms with teachers and students.

A longtime district employee and a former assistant principal at Minneapolis Roosevelt High School, Walker currently works in eight classrooms, helping teachers strategize better ways to engage their African-American male students. He says he meets with students one-on-one when they come to him with problems. Walker also attends community events and talks to other organiza­tions that also support black male achievement.

Bernadeia Johnson was super­intendent of Minneapolis Public Schools when the Office of Black Male Student Achievement was created in 2014. She hired Walker to lead the office.

“Michael Walker understands as a black male who graduated from Minneapolis Public Schools,” Johnson said. “He understood what I was trying to do.”

The office was modeled after a similar office at a school in Oakland, Calif., according to Johnson. In the Oakland office’s first four years, suspensions for black male students dropped by half and graduation rates increased 10 percent, according to a Star Tribune report.

The Office of Black Male Student Achievement started with a budget of $200,000 for the 2014-15 school year. This year, its budget increased to about $1.2 million.

According to the school district website, the Minneapolis office’s goals for black males are to reduce suspension rates by 25 percent, increase graduation rates by 10 percent and improve attendance. It also sets goals for black males to participate in taking Advanced Placement or post-secondary courses, and to get students to believe in themselves more.

But these ideas were controversial.

“Some people were happy about what we are doing, other people were concerned,” Johnson said. “‘Could we pull it off?’ And other people thought, ‘Why pay attention to black boys?’’’

She added: “My thought was that paying attention to black boys and creating strategies will help apply those elsewhere for all students.”

Black male students consistently perform at or near the bottom on nearly all performance indicators in the district, according to the office’s website.

The district’s black male graduation rate in 2014 was only 39 per-cent, according to Office of Black Male Student Achievement data. That’s 26 percent lower than white male students in the same year.

Progress is gradual, Walker said, noting that it could take the office 15 to 20 years to change students’ and community members’ beliefs and mindsets. Walker said black male students’ GPAs and graduation rates are showing signs of improvement (the office was unable to provide specific data before this article was published).

According to a May 2015 KARE 11 report, signs of progress showed in the district during the 2014-15 school year: days missed due to suspensions dropped 47 percent for African-American males, the percentage of African-American male students suspended was down 3 percent, and the African-American male graduation rate increased 4 percent, among other things.

“We are starting to see students understanding and acknowledging being a part of the educational system,” Walker said. “They’re engaged in the learning process. We’re hearing from them that they’re getting moral support, that they’re a part of this movement.”

He added: “Attendance and GPA will take a little bit longer to tame, but in the short term we have seen GPA changes.”

For the future, Walker insisted the voices of young black male students stay at the forefront.

“We want to make sure we have their voice at the table whenever we make decisions,” he said.

Update: Data from the Office of Black Male Student Achievement was provided to ThreeSixty Journalism after this article went to print in ThreeSixty Magazine. Office data shows that GPAs for high school and middle students enrolled in the office's B.L.A.C.K. program rose each quarter to an average of 2.15 GPA by the end of the school year. Meanwhile, the average GPA for African-American males who speak English at home, outside of this group, has fallen to 1.93. Data also shows that more than 700 teachers and staff at 15 schools participated in professional development and more than 2,000 black male students have been reached through professional development and site support.

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