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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.

Sammy White is a behavior specialist at a program for kids whose angry, defiant or violent tendencies have proven too much for other schools. He’s incredibly good at helping kids regulate their emotions enough to stay in school, and beloved by everyone at Intermediate District 287, the consortium of west metro school districts that runs the program. When he tells students he’s been there, they believe him.

White’s mother died when he was 6 and he didn’t meet his father until he was 31. His grandmother struggled to keep him in line. By the time she enrolled him at Franklin Middle School (which was closed for a time but is scheduled to reopen next fall) he was staying out all weekend, exposed to drugs, gangs, alcohol and violence. On Sunday nights, he’d come home and try to placate her.

photo of sammy white on a basketball court
Photo by Johnny Crawford
Basketball and the friends he made playing pulled White off the streets and into a career as an educator.

White’s family is from the South, where his cousins grew up being taught by African-Americans. Many went on to careers in education. But White was in seventh grade before he encountered an African-American teacher. Jon Berry taught math at Franklin during White’s time there.

White remembers Berry and the other black teachers at the school as being empathetic and firm, helping a kid find a way to focus on what needs to happen next at school regardless of what kind of chaos is happening at home.

At first White tried not to go.

“The first day that I was supposed to go, I didn’t go. I remember going out our back door, and climbing in the window and hiding up under my bed the entire day. When it was time for school to be out, I went back out of the window and came through the door.

“My great grandmother had moved up here, to Minnesota, with us from Alabama. She asked me, ‘What did you learn in school today?’ I lied. At that point she took her brush and she said, ‘Don’t you ever lie to me.’ She told me that Mr. Bender, one of the school social workers who would come out to homes when kids weren’t in school, had came to our house.

“I would say some of the disconnect was at home, seeing different things. My grandma was on me about school. But I had a couple of my uncles that had been incarcerated and their presence made it kind of challenging. I loved my uncles. The absence of my father. There were tons of broken pieces that complicated the matter of education for me.

“From that point on I would get up, I would leave, I would go to school. There was those days where I might have been running the street and I might have come to school, and I was tired and just put my head down. Ms. McMains, or Mr. Hertz or somebody, they’d come and they’d say, ‘I’ll let you sleep for a couple of minutes but I’m going to need you to get up and need you to get on board. You have to get some of this done.’ ”

After Franklin, White tried three different high schools before ending up at an alternative learning center that worked intensively with a small number of students. He was behind, but he was determined. By that time he had lost a number of friends to violence. He lost more when he chose his education over the streets.

After graduation White found himself at loose ends. As had been the case since he was little, the only thing he was really interested in was basketball. He played in a number of leagues, trying to keep busy and stay out of trouble.

A basketball buddy asked if he was interested in working part time in a shelter for young people. White found he could listen in a way that made a young person feel they had been heard. When his time came to talk he could voice hard truths respectfully.

He loved the job so much that he got a second one at the Harriet Tubman Center, where he was part of a team that responded to domestic abuse calls involving children. From there, he went to work in the same kind of setting that enabled him to finish high school.

photo of white in front of district 287 school
Photo by Johnny Crawford
Alternative learning centers and credit recovery programs like the ones where White works are disproportionately populated by boys of color.

“I had experienced life and enough hardship to understand where they were coming from. I think it’s hard to work with a person and then to get something out of them and you can’t really relate or understand their journey. I think it’s hard.

“It would be crazy for me to go out to Eden Prairie to a person who does real estate and tell them how to sell houses and what they need to do with money if that’s never been my path in life. I don’t know anything about that walk of life, I don’t.

“Being in a place, truly, where you can be who you were you could love these young people and help them have a genuine clear shot at life. I think a lot of times a lot of young people get robbed out of life. Their encounters, whether it be some alternative learning center programs, whether it be the juvenile justice system and so forth, sometimes home. You get robbed out of life.

“For me, I feel like any time I have an opportunity to sit down with a kid and be 100 percent honest with them without them feeling judged, they’re getting a fair shot. It may hurt but they’re more subject to receive.”

“If that means at lunch going and sitting down with the kid who’s having a complicated day. If that means I’m taking a kid outside of the building and walking around the building with them and talking about how to focus in class or about being respectful to the teacher — whatever it takes you do. That’s what I believe.

“A lot of time, we say we’re listening but really, we’re not listening. We hear them but we’re not listening. A lot of times just having ears don’t make us hear a person. We have to genuinely understand where the hurt or the hardship really comes from.”

White was thrilled when Michael Walker, the younger brother of another Franklin classmate and basketball buddy, was chosen to lead a new effort to lift up and advocate for black boys in Minneapolis Public Schools.

“Mike is an inspiring young man. I am proud of him beyond words because I believe that what he’s doing will have a major impact on the lives of a lot of not just young men, young people. When you mold young men, you create strong relationships, which create strong marriages, which puts children in great places and provides a lot of opportunities.”

Portrait of Ansu Kolleh

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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.