Starting at the ground level: Michael Walker is focused on helping young black males

A product of Minneapolis Public Schools, Michael Walker knows the challenges he faces as director of the Office of Black Male Student Achievement.
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Another big piece of this is managing expectations. And that’s ... the community ... the people inside of the school district, and then also managing my own expectations. This is near and dear to my heart. I’m a black male myself, and so I understand and live the lives of these young people.

The achievement gap. It’s a common term in education that refers to the disparity in academic performance between groups of students.

For black teens, it means congratulating them for getting a C in their classes—as if that’s all they’re good enough to do.

Michael Walker is seeking to create solutions to the negative labels attached to black students—in particular, black males. Increasing grade point averages. Eliminating the achievement gap. Improving graduation rates. It’s a daunting task, Walker admits.

But as director of the newly formed Office of Black Male Student Achievement for Minneapolis Public Schools, Walker is trying to meet those goals. His position starts with “listening and building genuine relationships with the students,” something Walker learned as a former assistant principal at Roosevelt High School, where he also went to school as a teen.

Walker has heard plenty of stories, and one in particular clarifies the expectations set for black males in everyday settings.

“One (black teen) once told me that no matter where we go, we are looked at as monsters. Those were his exact words. And me being a counselor (at the time), I had to ask more questions,” Walker said.

“So he started to give a story, and the story was that one day they were getting ready to go home from school. And in Minneapolis public schools, high school students take the city bus … so they were going to the bus stop, and it was kind of windy this day. And it was him and two of his friends. They wanted to go inside the bus shelter to, you know, get out of the wind so they could stay warm.

“And there was a white lady that was sitting inside the bus shelter on the other side. And he said, ‘As we walked in, she got up and walked out. No bus was coming. But she got up and walked out of that space. She didn’t say anything to me, but the fact that she got up and walked out of that space made me feel a certain way.’

“No sooner than when he finished that last statement, another kid jumped in and said, ‘When they do that, it makes me want to give them what they expect.’ And I didn’t say this to the young men at that time, but it brought me to the notion that it all goes back to expectations.

“If we expect our kids to misbehave and act a certain way, that’s exactly what they want to give. He stated that. If you expect them to do something positive and take care of business, that’s exactly what they will show. So it’s all about our expectations of young people. We, as adults, have to make sure that we’re setting those high expectations and having that belief that they can reach those high expectations.”

Helping young African American men in Minneapolis. Where do you begin?

That’s the million-dollar question. Because there’s so many entry points into the work that there’s not just one silver bullet that can solve what’s going on. If there were a silver bullet, everybody would be implementing it.

The first place that I’m starting at is the ground level, and when I say at the ground level, I want to get input from the young men themselves to get an idea of what they feel like they’re struggling with and what it is they feel like they need.

I also want to make sure that we are taking the time to understand that not all of our young men are in so-called crisis or at risk. We have some young men that are doing some positive things out there: That are going to college, that are being scholars, that are taking care of business. And that story needs to be told, as well.

I’m a licensed counselor by trade, so I went to school and got my masters in counseling. I was taught … that people have the answers to their own issues or concerns or problems, and the key as counselors is to go out and to ask questions. To pull that information out. And once we have that information out, now we can use that information to develop a plan to overcome whatever their obstacle is or whatever need they have.

What’s a common experience that black students have shared with you?

The underlying message that I’m hearing is centered around belief. Low expectations of them in the classroom. A lot of them feeling that they are being racially profiled when it comes to discipline in the school buildings.

One statement that I’ve been hearing over and over—not the exact words from each person—but basically the same statement, is that “if we do something, we are called out quicker than other groups in our school. So we have one opportunity to mess up, whereas other people have three or four opportunities to make a mistake. The first time we make a mistake, we get kicked out of the classroom or get a behavior (punishment), and other groups have more opportunities for that.”

There’s an analogy that people use all the time: That you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. And some people use that when talking about education. We need to ask two clarifying questions, because I look at the water as education. Obviously, the horse is the young people that we’re working with.

The first question that makes me want to get clarity on: Have we made that horse thirsty? What have we done to make them thirsty? If we just walk a horse to water and we haven’t made them thirsty, they’re not gonna drink it because they need it.

The second piece of that is: What does the water look like? Are we giving them water that’s infested with all types of nasty things in there? Water that they don’t want?

So if you’re doing that, I’m not gonna drink that, either. I think we have to look at some of the things we’re doing in our system, to say, “OK, what is the curriculum like? Is the curriculum nice? Is the curriculum relevant to young people? Does the curriculum value who they are? What do they bring to the table, and how will we make them thirsty for knowledge? Have we showed them what some possible careers are, and have we put them in a situation where they can see the different career options in front of them?”

What expectations do you think they have as young men?

I always think of a story about when I was talking to one of the young men over at one of the middle schools. And a lot of them were asking me, “Where do you work at? Where’s your building at?” And my building is located on Broadway, right across the street from Popeye’s Chicken, right in North Minneapolis. The school was also in North Minneapolis.

And I said, “Have you ever been to the Davis Center?”

And he’s like, “No, I don’t even know what the Davis Center is.”

And I said, “Really, it’s the building right across the street from Popeye’s Chicken. You’ve never been in the Davis Center?”

“No, I’ve never been in there, but I’ve walked past it like 10 or 12 times.”

So again, me being a counselor, I’ve got to ask a few more questions. And so I said, “Have you been inside Popeye’s Chicken?”

He’s like, “Yeah!”

“Have you been inside Cub Foods right down the street?”

“Yeah!”

“Ever been inside Marvin’s Liquor Store?”

“Yeah!”

“Taco Bell?”

“Yeah!”

And then I asked him a second question: “Do you know what jobs are in those buildings and in those spaces?”

“Yeah, cashier, stock boy, and a person to push the carts in …” So they knew all those different positions.

It made me step back and think that we have this building in North Minneapolis, with tons of professionals in there, and the students have no idea what’s inside of that building or who is inside of that building. And so their reality is that, “Well, those jobs that I’m gonna be able to get are the cashier or the busboy or the stockperson.”

If that’s what your frame of reference is, they’re smart enough to know that I don’t need a college education in order to get that job. I don’t need that kind of knowledge because of where I’m going. Because I see it right here.

What does the achievement program that you are building look like?

I’m (four) months into the job. I haven’t solved anything, and the great thing about it, no one has solved it yet. And it’s not like this is a field that anyone’s involved in, so it’s gonna take time. We have to remember that. It wasn’t overnight that we got to this situation. It isn’t overnight that we’re going to fix the situation.

Right now, I’m just doing all the listening phases. I started to come up with a plan of action … increase graduation rates, increase reading and math proficiency, increase attendance and decrease both behavior that results in out-of-school suspensions and out-of-class referrals. I’m still developing that plan.

Some folks have been successful in Minneapolis, and there are some places nationally that have done great things, so I’m looking at all of that to see what pieces to implement.

What are some places you have been looking at?

The biggest place is Oakland, Calif. They were the first school district to create an office specifically for black males, and they have been in existence for about four years. Before I got into this position, they came out to Minneapolis and talked to our top leadership about the importance of the office and what were some of the strategies that they were using to try to impact some of that change.

Another big piece of this is managing expectations. And that’s managing the expectations of the community, managing the expectations of people inside of the school district, and then also managing my own expectations. This is near and dear to my heart. I’m a black male myself, and so I understand and live the lives of these young people.

What direct experience do you think benefits you most in this job?

Before I got into education, I worked for the YMCA, and so I was working at a nonprofit with young men. So I’ve seen it from both sides. And when I took on this role, I started to see some of the students that I have lost in the past—all those who have not made it, who are unfortunately dead, or went away to jail.

I still know those students. I still know their names. They come with me on this journey every single day. So that’s kind of what my motivation is. To not allow that to happen.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Amira Warren-Yearby, a senior at St. Louis Park High School, is a 2013 graduate of ThreeSixty’s Intermediate Summer Camp. A senior reporter who has written about race, religion and technology, Amira was one of 42 teens selected to the Asian American Journalists Association’s prestigious J-Camp in Boston this summer. She also produces videos for The Echo, St. Louis Park’s high school paper, and serves as a St. Louis Parktacular ambassador.

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