“My job is not to fix black boys,” says Michael Walker, the man who is in charge of the relatively new office of Black Male Student Achievement in Minneapolis schools. “Because when you have an office like this, sometimes people look at you and say ‘Walker, your job is to fix black boys’. And what I tell them is it is our job to change how we think and what we believe black boys are capable of.”
Walker has been given the tough job of solving the problem of black males underachieving in school. Data from his office show African American males in Minneapolis who were born in the U.S. consistently perform at or near the bottom on nearly all performance indicators: test scores, suspensions and graduation rates.
When he got the job about two years ago, Walker decided the first thing he needed to do was listen to the community. So he decided to visit the barber shops and beauty salons of North Minneapolis.
“Some people chuckled and laughed at me. Maybe they don’t understand what happens in barber shops and hair salons in the black community?” Walker told a recent gathering of the League of Women Voters. “If you go into these spaces you’re going to hear the uncut raw truth of whatever conversation you’re talking about. If we want to really make change, I needed to hear the real truth of what their experience was going through our system.”
In those spaces away from the glare of big public meetings, Walker got parents to level with him about what’s wrong with their education system.
Broken beliefs in the system, the students, and relationships with teachers
Walker found “there’s a system of broken beliefs.” Families and parents didn’t believe that the “education system was fair and equitable when it came to dealing with their black males.”
“When I would talk to community members they didn’t feel that the education system was serving all students. And when we look at our data it kind of proves that, right?” Black males have lower graduation rates and test scores. They get suspended more.
Walker also listened to the teachers. He said they “didn’t believe they had the tools necessary to be successful with black males in the classroom. And they also… and they didn’t say this directly… but they also didn’t believe that black males could be successful. Some of the statements they would use is, ‘they’re coming from single-parent homes’ ‘social economic status, the neighborhoods that they were growing up in.’ And I was, OK, I can hear what they’re saying.”
And then he talked to the students, the black boys. Walker found “they didn’t feel like their voices were heard. They didn’t feel like they were valued. They didn’t feel like they were connected to the schools. They didn’t feel like they were getting to learn about who they were and where they’d come from.”
Adding it all up, Walker decided he needed to rebuild trust with the community, change the beliefs that teachers had about black boys and have them build “authentic relationships” with their students.
“Because my beliefs will dictate how I engage a student. So if I believe they are not capable of learning, if I believe that they’re going to be bad, then I’m going to treat them in those manners. And so our goal is to try and change that.”
“We believe that absent a relationship it’s hard to teach a student anything. But present in a relationship, you can teach them whole gobs of stuff.”
To begin that process, Walker created a class called BLACK — which stands for Building Lives Acquiring Cultural Knowledge. “I’m very intentional about using the word black. In most spaces black is always used as negative. So I want to use this black acronym for something positive.”
The class gives students the opportunity to learn about the experience of going through the United States as a black man. “One thing we really focus on is racial identity. We want to make sure they have a strong sense of who they are.”
Walker wants students to graduate with 21st century skills: critical thinking, collaboration, creativity and communication. “We have a fifth one… it’s called critical questioning.”
“I want our students to be critical questioners of every single thing.” One of those things Walker wants his students to question is the negative narrative about black males that is prevalent in the media and pop culture. “I want our young men to critically question that and say, ‘where did you get that evidence from, why are you saying that’s our narrative?’”
Things are starting to improve. When Walker started his program, the average Grade Point Average for black males in Minneapolis schools was 1.79. It’s now 1.83. And for black males that have been in Walker’s classes the average GPA is 2.27. That’s still well below white males students. But it’s a start.
“We didn’t get in this situation overnight,” says Walker, “so we’re not going to fix it overnight.”
Walker has worked as a career and college center coordinator for AchieveMpls at Roosevelt High School from 2006 to 2009 before serving Minneapolis Public Schools as Roosevelt’s dean of students from 2009 to 2011 and assistant principal from 2011 to 2014.