Recently on this site Kenneth Eban, a great example of the thoughtful young leadership needed to lead our city and state into the future, asked the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) what they consider the worth of the young black men they are charged with educating. Soon after, advocates in the African-American community, led by the African American Leadership Forum, asked MPS to invest more into the recently created Office of Black Male Student Achievement — citing the $200,000 investment reflected in this year’s budget that can be seen to reflect powerfully on priorities and expectations. Quite simply it breaks down to $28 per black male child, which feels so small in comparison to the reality and magnitude of the crisis at hand. The district responded by noting that amount should be seen as the initial investment to hire the leader to take this effort forward, and just last week announced the hiring of Michael Walker to determine the vision, strategy, and investments necessary for this initiative to succeed.
As Eban astutely noted, there are multiple investments we need to make to meet the needs of our diverse learners — not just in dollars but also in words and values. I could not agree more with the need to fully meet the unique needs of gifted and talented students, English language learners and students with disabilities. Yet my heart and soul are heavy when I think about how systematically young black men are being underserved as I look back on our country’s history and know how much we have to atone for. The legacies of slavery, of Jim Crow, of segregation remain profound in communities far beyond the generations who directly experienced them or inflicted them.
Assets that statistics don’t show
My conviction on this comes from my experience as a teacher; I taught predominantly African-American children in rural North Carolina, kids growing up in a county where just 11 percent of adults over 25 hold a bachelor’s degree. We routinely saw ourselves at the top of every undesirable ranking of North Carolina counties, and near the bottom of all of the good ones — and I saw how my students internalized those messages into their core. What I learned living there were the assets within a community that those statistics don’t show, and the limitless potential within each of my students that couldn’t be measured by a survey. They each had the same hopes, dreams, and abilities as my classmates in an affluent suburb of Lake Minnetonka.
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Writing this, my focus isn’t on convincing the families who live these realities every day that this initiative in Minneapolis Public Schools is necessary. They don’t need me to say or do anything to convince them this is a crisis that needs action and that their children, those who experience the opportunity gap most acutely, have the same potential as any other. It’s to ask others in Minneapolis to support the efforts to radically improve black male achievement when it may feel as though this issue doesn’t directly impact you, or your kids’ education, or your neighborhood, or your job.
I believe that meaningful investments in equalizing access, resources and opportunities will shape the future of all children in this city. Morally, the case is clear. We pride ourselves on being a state rooted in values of equal opportunity and democracy — none of which is possible when the majority of an entire segment of our population is unable to graduate from high school within four years and attend a post-secondary institution. But what about the kids for whom graduating high school in four years may not be realistic? Or that college isn’t for everyone? I hear that a lot. And when those are the same questions being asked about the future of students at my alma mater, Minnetonka High School, I’ll consider the premise of the question. Until then, I’ll talk about how we need systemic change so that all children can thrive academically and personally on an absolute scale.
Creating this change is also tied to our collective economic future. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that 70 percent of all jobs in Minnesota (2.1 million of them) will require some post-secondary education beyond a high school diploma by the year 2018. Consider the implications for our work force and economy when our increasingly diverse state struggles to fill its jobs with qualified and well-prepared staff. The financial consequences in addition to the moral ones —for all of us — will be enormous.
I believe district and community leaders when they say they know and believe it is time to act. So while we should and must continue to ask the tough questions of our leaders, we must at the same time support them — and now Michael Walker in particular — with the backing and strength they may need to make bold and just decisions for a system of this size and scale.
Sen. Paul Wellstone famously said, “We all do better when we all do better.” I hope we can come together as individuals and a city to increase our collective well-being by doing right by the children who need and deserve better than what they’re getting from us right now.
Crystal Brakke is the executive director of Teach for America in the Twin Cities.
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