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Obama’s education legacy bid: helping young men of color

The nation’s first African American president is energizing advocates and educators with his talk about young black men.

President Obama: "I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short."
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Since before Barack Obama’s re-election, it has seemed more likely than not that the 44th president of the United States would leave office with no education legacy whatsoever. Not even a controversial one, such as George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy.

Sometime during the long, soul-sapping winter this changed. The Obama who spoke frankly of race, privilege and opportunity on the 2008 campaign trail reappeared to announce two bold equity initiatives, initially to less fanfare than one might imagine.

The nation’s first African American president is talking about young people of color, and in particular young black men, in a way that has energized educators and their advocates in a way that I, at least, haven’t heard since his first campaign.

On recent visits to high schools, I have heard some of the Twin Cities most disadvantaged students noting what they have in common with the president of the United States. And about the fact that Obama has undertaken a special initiative involving them and their teachers.

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In announcing My Brother’s Keeper, a five-year, $200 million initiative focused in large part on African American boys, Obama spoke pretty candidly about his youth.

“I didn’t have a dad in the house,” the New York Times quoted him as saying in February. “And I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time. I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short.”

The president was galvanized by the shooting of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. The man who shot the unarmed Martin used that state’s “shoot-first” doctrine to justify the killing. In the aftermath, Obama noted that if he had a son, “He’d look like Trayvon.”

Twin Cities teachers and school leaders are already tapped into the initiative, and their students are talking about it. Buzz, then, arrived with the spring. 

A few weeks earlier, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan warned schools nationwide that it will not tolerate the severe racial disparities in suspensions, expulsions and other high-stakes forms of discipline that are now the rule in too many places. His department issued guidance on alternative means of handling non-violent and minor behavior infractions.

This is huge. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul have been singled out for the severely disparate rates at which they discipline African American boys. Minneapolis Public Schools recently entered voluntarily into an agreement with Duncan’s Office of Civil Rights to make radical changes to its policies.

Nationwide, 95 percent of suspensions are for nonviolent misbehavior such as being disruptive or disrespectful. With three suspensions by ninth grade, a student is almost certain not to graduate high school.

African-American students without disabilities are three times as likely as their peers to be suspended, and much more likely to be suspended two or more times in a year. One in six was excluded from school at least once in the 2009-2010 school year, a rate that skyrockets to more than one in three among black high-school students with disabilities.

A modest proposal to help Twin Cities schools implement positive, effective alternatives did not make it into the omnibus education bills now awaiting action at the legislature.

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Obama has nearly three years left in office. Wouldn’t it be amazing if he used that time to strengthen the relationship he seems to have begun building with students of color here and elsewhere? Now that would be a legacy.