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.
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 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.