Newspaper article

Brothers' Keepers: Reinventing School for Young Black Men

Newspaper article

Brothers' Keepers: Reinventing School for Young Black Men

Article excerpt

They call it the school-to-prison pipeline, the journey that often begins, for African-American boys, with an inability to read. That too often leads to a referral to special education, frequently for defiant or angry behavior that in white children is likely to be seen as the understandable after-effect of being unable to keep up. African-Americans make up 1 percent of the state's teachers, so the person judging the behavior invariably does so across a cultural chasm.

It gets worse as the boys get bigger. In the 2011-2012 school year, black students received 78 percent of suspensions in Minneapolis Public Schools and 69 percent of referrals to law enforcement. Half graduate -- remarkable, when you think about it, given that in 2013 a single African-American male scored proficient in reading at Minneapolis' "old" North High School.

For all the grim statistics generated about outcomes for African- American boys in Minnesota schools, precious little attention has been paid to what school is like for black youth and educators. We don't hear a lot -- and we don't ask -- about what it feels like to show up for school year after year unable to read.

What if we stopped speaking in numbers and started telling life stories? Would the children affected feel differently if they were taught by black men -- by men who had faced the same pressures and dreamed the same dreams? What happens when a man uses those experiences to reach back to a boy who is still dreaming?

School was not a welcoming place for any of the six men who share their experiences here. They sat in the same classrooms and played in the same pickup basketball games -- often literally. For one, the story ends in prison. For others the struggle fueled a desire to give back. For two, the ending has yet to be written.

Don Austin: The path to prison

When Don Austin was 15 he stole a car, sparking a police chase that killed a woman and disabled her two children. While he was in jail, he learned to read.

Jon Berry: Inspiration in an unlikely place

Jon Berry grew up in the small town of Greenwood, South Carolina, where schools ignored Brown v. Board of Education in favor of what he calls "separate but equal. …

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