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‘Black boys are not broken’

Posted on 25 February 2019 by calvin

A listening tour inspired OBMSA Director Michael Walker to develop a Belief Framework, which formed the foundation for the work of OBMSA. Four key stakeholders—community, parents and families, educators, and Black male students—form the outer ring of the framework. “They all need to believe in each other, which is why the arrows on the illustration are circular, having no beginning and no end. Their beliefs need to change and reinforce each other rather than work at odds as they currently do,” he explained. “Students need to believe in themselves. They also need educators to believe in them. Parents need to believe in educators. As the parents start to come around, as their beliefs change, the community at large will believe the system is working.” (Graphic provided)

OBMSA focuses on changing a broken system while building relationships with Black males

Five years ago, Michael Walker was tasked with solving a problem affecting the largest demographic group in Minneapolis Public Schools.

Today, he’s happy to report that black male students have higher GPAs, are dropping out at lower rates, and are more engaged.
These positive statistics can be directly tied to the district’s Office of Black Male Student Achievement (OBMSA) and the B.L.A.C.K. curriculum that Walker helped develop with University of Minnesota Department of African American & African Studies Dr. Keith Mayes.

The B.L.A.C.K (Building Lives Acquiring Cultural Knowledge) program introduces students to the complexity of the black male experience by exploring the lived reality of black men in the United States. The program is offered at four high schools, including South High, and four middle schools, including Folwell.

Photo left: “Our job is not to change or fix Black boys,” observed Minneapolis Public Schools office of Black Male Student Achievement Director Michael Walker, “because Black boys are not broken. We need to fix the system that Black boys navigate.” (Photo submitted)

While American history courses typically introduce Blacks in 1619 with slavery, B.L.A.C.K. reaches farther back to the thousands of years before slavery interrupted the history of Africa.

If you only start with slavery, that can lead to low self-worth and low self-esteem, Walker pointed out.

Since its inception, about 554 middle and high school students have participated in a B.L.A.C.K. class, and there have been 31 participants in the new elementary school program. Those who take the class for more than one year show the biggest improvements in their academics. The average GPA at the end of the 2014-2015 school year was 2.21 compared to 2.42 at the end of the 2016-2017 school year. Non-participants were at 1.99.

Fifty-four percent of participants graduated in 2018, compared to 47 percent of non-participants. Plus, 100 percent are on track to graduate, and none have dropped out of school. Discipline issues have decreased.

“I think if it weren’t for the [B.L.A.C.K.] class, my grades wouldn’t be where they’re at right now. And I wouldn’t be on track,” stated one participant.

Awakening greatness
Established in 2014, OBMSA is the second such office in the nation, following Oakland Unified Schools.

The mission of OBMSA is: to awaken the greatness within Black males in MPS, to have them determined to believe and achieve success, as defined by their own values and dreams.

In the beginning, Walker and team members set out to make sure those impacted were at the forefront of the decision-making process. Knowing that the traditional course of holding meetings in the school would end up with the same results, Walker used his status as a member of the Black community to gather input at local barbershops and hair salons.

Walker pointed out that generational trauma affects how well today’s students do in school, influenced by the experiences their parents had while they were in school. Today’s high numbers of Black students who are referred to Special Education classes or suspended is not brand new.

“This has been going on for generations,” he pointed out, and leads to parents who don’t even want to step foot into school buildings.

The unifying theme that came out of the listening tour was that there was a system of broken beliefs about others, Walker wrote in an article for VUE (Voices in Education) 2018 that he coauthored with OBMSA Equity Coordinator Corey Yeager and MPS Director of Accountability and Evaluation Jennie Zumbusch. “Parents and families did not believe that the teachers were fair and equitable when it came to dealings with their Black males. The community did not believe that the educational system was serving all students. Educators did not believe that they had the tools necessary to support Black males in the classroom, and, in some cases, they didn’t believe that they could be successful. Finally, Black males didn’t see academic success in their future.”

But one thing became clear to Walker and staff. “What is apparent from OBMSA’s work is that there is no such thing as an achievement gap, only a belief gap,” they wrote.

Through his work, Walker seeks to engage authentically with students and to create a family. Staff consider themselves “uncles” to participants, who are their “nephews.”

Participants themselves are called “Kings,” as a positive alternative to the other negative terms that have been used to describe Black males throughout history, and OBMSA staff see themselves in the “King building business.”

“We are intentionally using positive terms that bring value and honor to who they are and can be,” remarked Walker.

Photo right: Kings, B.L.A.C.K. participants, attend one of the monthly extended learning opportunities (ELO) offered at the University of Minnesota. Participants themselves are called “Kings,” as a positive alternative to the other negative terms that have been used to describe Black Males throughout history. “We are intentionally using positive terms that bring value and honor to who they are and can be,” remarked OBMSA Director Michael Walker. (Photo submitted)

Through the state’s Community Expert process, OBMSA brought in Black teachers as studies have shown that Black students matched with a Black teacher have both short- and long-term positive outcomes. The MPS teacher force is only 5 percent Black (and one percent Black male), while Black students make up 38 percent of the student body.

Jordan basketball incident
Walker is intimately acquainted with the Minneapolis School system. He grew up in North Minneapolis and moved to South Minneapolis in high school. He’s a graduate of Roosevelt High School (1994), where he later returned to work as a dean and then as assistant principal (2011-2014). As assistant basketball coach at Roosevelt from 1999-2011, he worked with the same man who coached his own team, Dennis Stockmo. He’s since returned as head varsity coach.

Walker sees basketball as a way to develop young men, who learn life skills on the court that can help them be successful off the court. The Roosevelt basketball team grades 9-12 is composed of about 70% Black players (Somali, Ethiopian, and African American).

In January 2019, an incident involving a Trump re-election flag during an away game in Jordan had players and community members talking about the issues of race.

Together, team members wrote a statement to show their unified intent to not be divisive but to bring people together. The team had stayed in the locker room during the National Anthem because of the Trump flag and did not participate in the pre-game handshaking as they don’t do that in their conference.

“This all comes down to people trying to see one another’s point of view—and we’re coming from a place that recognizes a history of oppression for people of color in the U.S. As young people, it’s our job to bridge the divide and make the world a better place, a safer place, for every person, no matter their color or culture. We mean no harm toward Jordan or its fans, and we hope they will stand with us for change,” wrote players.

“The lines of communication are open,” stated Walker.

Black boys are not broken
“Our job is not to change or fix Black boys,” observed Walker, “because Black boys are not broken. We need to fix the system that Black boys navigate.”

Towards that goal, OBMSA staff provide professional development for educators within the Minneapolis Public School system. Over 1,200 faculty and staff at 14 schools have attended sessions on topics such as unconscious bias, engaging Black males, power and privilege, and involving Black families more in education.

The goal is to help adults self-reflect on the ways they have been approaching Black students.

“I wish all of our MPS teachers had the opportunity to engage with OBMSA,” wrote one participant after a training. “It is clearly one of the best things MPS is doing for our students.”

OBMSA staff will also be presenting on Apr. 10 at the U of M Urban Leadership Academy.

“I am so grateful for the team I work with,” stated Walker. “I love what we have developed and built together.”