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MPS must get serious about breaking down achievement barriers

It’s time for Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) to get serious about breaking down achievement barriers to help all of its students – not just the lucky ones — succeed. 

Kenneth Eban

After a school budget vote in June, I wrote a Community Voices piece entitled, “Asking Minneapolis Public Schools: What Are We Worth?” questioning Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s claims that the Office of Black Male Achievement is a priority for Minneapolis Public Schools. There was a discrepancy between these claims and the district’s allocations, and the MPS budget that was set to a vote revealed quite a different set of priorities.

A subsequent school board meeting in August only served to aggravate my concern, and the concerns of many others, that the Office of Black Male Achievement holds low rank with district leaders. 

Leading up to the August meeting, most members of the school board seemed unwilling to talk about the Office of Black Male Achievement, a supposed district priority. Securing space on the agenda required serious legwork, with board member Tracine Asberry interceding and publicly asking the rest of the board to put the item on its meeting agenda for August. Even then, our conversation was limited to just over an hour. The topic was finally addressed, but meeting time was restricted on the day of the primary and further split among presenters.

It was obvious that the Office of Black Male Achievement would not receive the attention it deserved from the members of the school board. This last-minute conversation, the restricted schedule, and the decision to divide time among topics rather than hold additional meetings, as had been done before, revealed just how little consideration was given to black male achievement in a district whose largest single demographic is African-American.

Was this really the big plan for first 100 days?

The final blow was dealt when the plan for the Office of Black Male Achievement was unveiled. Rather than outlining a vision to elevate the black males in our community and support their true potential, Director Michael Walker discussed barber shops and hair salons. Was this really the big plan for the first 100 days?

MPS CEO Michael Goar and Superintendent Johnson have both admitted they struggle with community engagement, and with a plan so clearly lacking inspiration, why hadn’t the district taken this opportunity to engage in a real and substantive dialogue with the community?

This office has the potential to do amazing things for the students of MPS and the community. However, the level of commitment to the Office of Black Male Achievement was determined when the budget was created. If MPS had invested $2 million rather than one-tenth of that in the office, dismissive plans like those currently on the table would not be accepted by district officials and leadership.

We are the punchline

Superintendent Johnson had the opportunity to send a message to the city about how serious she was about this office with an initial investment. Instead, she and Walker made the aims and plans for the program seem like a bad joke, attributing their lack of planning to distractions from “silly little things” and making light of a serious challenge facing the students they are responsible for helping succeed. Unfortunately for black males, we are the punchline.

Instead of posing a plan that plays into stereotypes and reinforces the idea that our black males are unable to achieve more, the school board should give us a plan that addresses how and why MPS is failing to help black males — a plan that shows how this office will break down the barriers of systemic racism throughout the district. That’s going to require open, honest dialogue about what’s working and what isn’t, and legislative and financial support that gives the best solutions a fighting chance. It’s not too late to turn MPS around – but it’s time to get serious.

Kenneth Eban is the state captain of Students for Education Reform-Minnesota.


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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/26/2014 - 09:30 am.

    Big problem

    I am disappointed to hear this information. That being said, since those in charge are lacking in insight, foresight, and overall vision, what would you propose? I agree with the district that salons and barber shops could be a solution for SOME students, but there’s only so much hair that anyone is interested in, let alone successful in. What is an alternative? How do we elevate young black men in society? I don’t think that black males are a punchline. Perhaps it’s up to a group of young black males to come up with a viable solution. Quite frankly, no one else is going to understand the position they are in. How do you see young black males succeeding? One thing I’ve learned from my experience as a young white woman (less young now, though) is that people in positions of management are more receptive to a solution than a problem. They are more apt to put energy and resources into implementing a solution than researching a problem or coming up with a solution themselves. Plus, if you can provide the RIGHT solution for those that are affected rather than the solution perceived to be right by those who aren’t experiencing the problem, you get a better outcome.

  2. Submitted by Raj Maddali on 08/26/2014 - 11:25 am.

    A lot of high sounding words

    “achievement barriers”,”barriers of systemic racism” – Tell me how going to school, coming home, doing your homework and repeating that cycle are affected by these sophisticated sounding words.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/26/2014 - 02:49 pm.

      My guess

      Since I’m not in the same boat as a young black male, I can only guess. But my guess would be that simply doing your homework won’t overcome some of the issues that result in the underachievement of black males. If it was as simple as that, there would probably not be a problem. For those that have trouble academically, there may be less access to individualized help (monetary barrier). For those that have trouble motivationally, there may be less access to mentorship and guidance (adult or peer). Beyond that, there are issues with proper nutrition, safety concerns, peer pressure, and parental involvement (for whatever reason). That’s just a guess. Some of the barriers are socioeconomic, some of them are cultural. But there is a very real problem for young black males. I don’t know if school districts can solve the underlying issues, but what is being suggested by MPS is laughable (assuming there isn’t more to it). Since the answer is likely not as simple as doing homework, I wonder what the answer is. Being a different minority, but having a disadvantaged economic background, I can certainly see some of the obstacles, but not all of them. I don’t have a solution. I do think that it’s much more likely that a solution will come from those most affected, though. I suggest that Mr. Eban spend some time looking for potential solutions as well as keep pointing out the ridiculousness of the currently suggested solution.

      • Submitted by Raj Maddali on 08/26/2014 - 05:31 pm.


        Firstly I respect your viewpoint. But i simply disagree. There is no price for failure in our school system. So the kids just glide along or pushed along, to be someone else’s problem the next year. Every teacher knows something needs to be said. But why bell that cat. So just move things along. The school board will sniff some statements and then the dance goes on and on. And people want more programs.

        A basic start is doing homework. Nothing else, i repeat nothing else matters. If a kid cant’ do his/her homework then show me how “institutional barriers”, “racism” and all that stuff prevents them. If people don’t want to make an attempt, then their pointing at everything else lacks credibility. Do your part. If u can’t, then tell me why ? If there is a valid reason, then its valid. Else everything else does not count one iota.

        I can understand if minority children do their homework, show up and yet there are deficiencies. Then its a super valid issue. But what we have doesn’t even come close to that and we are supposed to support more and more and more programs.

        Just so u know, Plenty of immigrant families come and live in apartments. And their children go to become doctors etc. Where is the racism ? Is there racism. Of course there is, But it is not the overwhelming barrier that is being posited, Then how are 40 percent of companies in Silicon Valley started by Indian who came with less than $1000.

        Also. I had a African American roommate in college (and in my grad housing). And i told him very clearly one day that his African studies and his membership in a purple robe wearing society was not going to get him a job. I told him to take at least one programming class. At first he was really angry, but i did not bend. But he was heavily influenced by all my Indian friends. Today he is extremely successful and he always mentions that. But Mike was willing to do his part. He was a hard worker. The rest of minorities in our college (who we talk about when we meet) are janitors, college dropouts, in prison. Why ? Because no one wants to tell them the facts of America and how to move the ladder. Rather have more “programs” which don’t work.

  3. Submitted by Shannon Bullock on 08/26/2014 - 01:18 pm.

    I’m taken aback

    The response from the superintendent is not merely pathetic or lacking in detail and attention. It is downright offensive. If girls were failing in our schools, and a Female Student Achievement program was set up only to offer guidance into doing nails, sewing, and being a secretary, how well would that go over with people in 2014? We would all condemn it for perpetuating institutional sexism and pushing young women into low wage jobs with no opportunities for advancement. We would find it appalling that someone would even suggest this would help women reach wage equality and opportunity equity with men. Yet this same approach somehow seemed ok for young black men to the people who run our schools? So not acceptable or appropriate! We deserve an explanation, and we should insist on a real plan for this program with money spent only on evidence-based research to ensure we are promoting equity, not low wage career-tracked segregation. An explanation on the paltry funding is necessary as well.

  4. Submitted by ellen krug on 08/26/2014 - 02:01 pm.

    Keep Pushing

    I am not fully informed about the Office of Black Male Student Achievement, but I can tell you this: I am very aware of the racial and social disparities in this metropolitan area. I know of only one thing that works to close those disparities: advocating, advocating, advocating. Keep pushing on this subject. Don’t let anyone push you back; respectful persistence, in the end, works. Good luck and thank you for bringing this to my attention.

  5. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 08/26/2014 - 09:02 pm.

    Easy blame

    Blaming schools and racism for underachievement is easy, but just how much can any school do in 6.5 hours a day, five days a week, when children spend afternoons, evenings, weekends, holidays and summers in dysfunctional environments?

    Sure, racism is a problem, but having taught (at undergraduate level), I cannot understand how a teacher can be expected to overcome the environments in which the students spend most of their time. Parents with expectations of the children’s achievement are a bigger influence, and even they have difficulty overcoming bad influences of peer pressure, bullying and dangerous neighborhoods — especially when they’re not at home to supervise because they both have to work or there’s only one parent.

    This country has to work harder to get people out of poverty if it wants to see more African-American and Hispanic students do better. (For one thing, kids have a hard time learning when their bodies keep reminding them of how hungry they are.) As one writer said, those seeking to do better, as the young man who began this discussion is, should try to propose some solutions. And society needs to invest more in activities to occupy, interest and inspire those whose financial, social and environmental situations work against them.

    Schools are an easy target for blame, but in this state, anyway, it’s not as though they’re not trying.

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