Schools Respond to Achievement Gap ; Creation of New Office Addresses Black Male Students' Academic Difficulties

By Willen, Liz | The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV), January 10, 2015 | Go to article overview

Schools Respond to Achievement Gap ; Creation of New Office Addresses Black Male Students' Academic Difficulties


Willen, Liz, The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV)


MINNEAPOLIS - Michael Walker stood in front of the nine-member Minneapolis school board on a recent snowy night and told it that change must come to this Midwestern city, a place where black students are far more likely to be suspended or expelled from school than their white peers, and where educators are struggling to close one of the widest achievement gaps between the two in the nation. "There is a larger system working against our black males, said Walker, a 38-year-old former high school principal and basketball coach who became the head of the newly formed office of Black Male Student Achievement last July. He asked the board for $1.2 million to help boost test scores, reduce suspensions and improve graduation rates - and said it would also take new attitudes.

"We need beliefs to change, Walker said, adding that too many black male students don't see academic success in their future. Overall, just 15 percent of Minnesota's black eighth-graders were considered proficient on national math tests in 2013, compared with 54 percent of their white peers.

In the 36,000-student Minneapolis district, less than a quarter of black students passed state reading tests in 2014. More than three-quarters of white students did so.

The creation of Walker's office is one response to renewed concern about how far black students - particularly boys - lag behind their white peers, a concern heightened by growing national outrage over the decisions of grand juries not to indict the white police officers involved in killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Mo., and New York City.

In the roughly six months since he started, Walker has tried to address the glaring gap while playing a role he didn't anticipate: comforting and counseling students upset by the decisions in classrooms and on street corners.

"The issue for these young people is they just want to be heard, Walker said. "They want a place to express their emotions and their feelings. One student [a black male] told me: Wherever we go, we are looked at as monsters.'

Walker, a father of four partial to bow ties and immaculate suits, urges calm and encourages students to stay in school and gain the power to influence laws and policies. He's become a calming presence at intersections and highways where protesters lie down in streets to show their anger and dismay. And he's quick with specific advice about what black males should do when stopped by police.

As indignation over the killings grows across the United States, and protests follow, urban school districts will need role models such as Walker, said Christopher Chatmon, an educator who leads the nearly 5-year-old Office for African-American Male Achievement in the Oakland Unified School District, in California. Oakland became the first district with an office devoted entirely to improving bleak statistics for black boys, who are as likely to be killed as they are to graduate from high school ready for college.

Yet uncertainty remains about how much the initiative and, in particular, offices such as Chatmon's and Walker's can truly close achievement gaps, warns education professor and researcher Pedro Noguera, the executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools at New York University.

"Several districts have created offices like these, and it's not clear if they will have a positive impact on the broad array of challenges facing black males, Noguera said. "Ultimately, what matters most is for schools to find ways to improve the learning environment, reduce punitive approaches to school discipline and provide greater social and emotional support. …

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