When Michael Walker assumes his new post as head of Minneapolis Public Schools’ (MPS) Office of Black Male Student Achievement in coming days, he will be stepping onto a slender perch indeed.
His job will be to advocate for the district’s African-American boys, its single largest demographic group — and the one it’s failing at the highest rate.
In that capacity, Walker will be tasked with making things happen in a system that has struggled to understand the concept of institutional racism. And he will head an office whose critics — and they long predate its creation — wonder why black boys are being singled out for “special treatment.”
Most delicate, he will need to do some serious listening in a community that has felt burned by MPS time and again, even as recently as last month. In short, Walker has his work cut out for him.
Following months of behind the scenes discussion, in February the Minneapolis School Board passed a resolution creating what was then called the Office of Student Achievement. There was discomfort in the air in the board assembly room at the notion that the office would focus solely on the welfare of black boys.
Other large urban districts — most notably Oakland, California — had had success with the strategy, however. Having a single executive team member focused on the particular needs of young African-American men is important for a number of reasons.
This past spring, Oakland’s Chris Chatmon described his work during a visit to Minneapolis. He began, he told district leaders here, by listening to the black boys in question.
Over and over, he heard them say the same thing: That they had only to step through the front doors of the schoolhouse to be viewed as having done something wrong by the adults inside.
Chatmon’s role as “an advocate and an agitator” includes everything from organizing “manhood” classes with African-American men from the community to working with varying departments in his district to see disparities in discipline are reduced.
After Chatmon’s visit, MPS delegations attended conferences relating to a White House initiative to meet the needs of black and brown boys, known as My Brother’s Keeper, which was announced in the winter by President Barack Obama.
And there was one electrifying day when 100 successful African-American men walked the halls of Patrick Henry high school, talking to young men.
By the end of the school year, there was great enthusiasm for the MPS effort within Minneapolis’ African American community. Countless initiatives to address racial inequities had been launched over the years, only to sputter out. This felt different, though.
But then, in June, the school board took up the 2014-2015 budget. Many board members were unhappy with a last minute scrambling of the numbers to accommodate a request by outgoing board member Alberto Monserrate to beef up funding for English language learner (ELL) instruction.
Administrators appropriated $5 million in one-time ELL funding (an amount insiders acknowledge will never be spent because there are not enough teachers), $400,000 for gifted and talented services — and just $200,000 for the renamed Office of Black Male Student Achievement.
Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson had intended the funding to be seed money to get the office open and staffed. The symbolism, however, was too much for many. Adding to the slight: Other districts were poaching top talent for their African-American male initiatives.
A coalition of African-American groups complained to district brass. Some publicized their disappointment. “What are we worth?” asked one commentary by student activist Kenneth Eban.
News of Walker’s appointment has been met with a wait-and-see attitude. Walker, who has been an assistant principal at Roosevelt High School, has a stellar reputation and a skill set that would seem tailor-made for the job.
For eight years he headed the Black Achievers program at the YMCA. From there he went to work at Roosevelt first as its AchieveMPLS graduation and career coach, then its dean of students and finally as assistant principal.
It was Walker’s personal background, however, that convinced Johnson and District CEO Michael Goar that he was the perfect fit. As a Roosevelt student 20 years ago, Walker made two deliberate decisions. The first was to volunteer in as many arenas as possible in an effort to minimize the downtime during which so many of his peers got in trouble. The second was to structure his social life around a core group of friends who shared his goal of going to college and bettering their lives.
“I wanted to be a basketball player,” says Walker. “I had a dream and I knew you had to put yourself in a position to actualize the dream. To get to the NBA I had to go to college.”
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It helped that his mother was also relentlessly focused on college as the goal. And it helped that he had lots of coaches and mentors in his corner.
To this day, when Walker has a major decision to make he consults those same friends. Now they talk about bettering life for their own families.
Walker is quick to note that his first job will be outreach. “We need to be engaging the community broader stakeholders,” he says. “I need to connect with black fraternities, churches — to have some extensive community engagement.
“We need to start talking to students as well,” he adds. “The one thing I don’t want to do is go out and start up initiatives and programs without talking to youth.”
And then there is the business of managing expectations. The effort is not going to be a silver bullet, cautions Goar: “We will stumble along the way and we will learn as we go.”
And the lessons learned, while at first about meeting the needs of African-American boys, will find applications throughout the district, say Goar and Walker.
“We want to focus on eliminating the gap, and we are faced with major headwinds,” says Goar. “We need support from the community.”