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Brothers’ keepers: Reinventing school for young black men

Six intersecting life stories provide a window into heartbreak — and glimmers of hope.

photo of michael walker standing in front of a group of students
Photo by Johnny Crawford
Minneapolis Public Schools alumnus Michael Walker heads the Office of Black Male Student Achievement. He’s shown here with South High students participating in an effort to celebrate young black men and change their experience of school.

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.

photo of african american student wearing shirt with acronym 'BLACK' - Building Lives Acquiring Cultural Knowledge
Photo by Johnny Crawford
Many African-American students make it to high school or beyond before encountering a black teacher. What difference would changing that make?

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.

Portrait of Don Austin

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.

Portrait of Jon Berry

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.”

Portrait of Sammy White

Sammy White: The Teen Whisperer

Sammy White is a behavior specialist. He’s incredibly good at helping kids regulate their emotions enough to stay in school. When he tells students he’s been there, they believe him.

Portrait of Ansu Kolleh

Ansu Kolleh: Looking for home

If Ansu Kolleh is among the half of Minnesota English language learners who graduate from high school, it will be at least in part because of his disposition, which has allowed him to survive being the newcomer over and over again.

Portrait of Nordame Williams

Nordame Williams: ‘I had to be guilty, I guess’

The way Nordame Williams remembers the choice, it was between the jail — the same facility where Jon Berry teaches — and agreeing to do community service and enroll in an alternative learning center.

Portrait of Michael Walker

Michael Walker: The brothers’ keeper

After his family moved to Minneapolis from Gary, Indiana, Walker made two deliberate decisions. The first was to volunteer in as many places as possible to stay busy and off the streets. The second was to structure his social life around a core group of friends who shared his goal of going to college.

About this project

portrait of beth hawkins

The intertwined profiles you’re about to dive into were made possible by a fellowship that MinnPost education writer Beth Hawkins was awarded by the Equity Reporting Project: Restoring the Promise of Education. The fellowship was developed by Renaissance Journalism with funding from the Ford Foundation.

portrait of johnny crawford

Among the fellows was Johnny Crawford, an award-winning freelance photographer from Georgia and a former staff photographer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 28 years. It's our good fortune that he used his fellowship to photograph the men and boys profiled here. You can see additional photos that Crawford took while he was in the Twin Cities on his website.

Special thanks to MinnPosters Corey Anderson, Tom Nehil and Susan Albright for their collaboration on this project, and to Minneapolis Public Schools Office of Black Male Student Achievement and Intermediate District 287 for giving us tremendous access to their educators and students.