All Hail Michael Walker and His Kings

A Race-Equity Success Story from Minneapolis Public Schools

With the river of red ink and controversy issuing forth from Minneapolis Public Schools just at the moment, we could do a lot worse than to celebrate the progress made by Michael Walker and the kings served by his Office of Black Male Student Achievement. So much is going so right on Walker’s watch, and there are multiple reasons to call it out now.

To wit:

  • Not one nickel of the $33 million budget shortfall should be made up by endangering this work.
  • The various philanthropies and advocacy groups that mean to support Minneapolis students should be paying attention to Walker’s effort. Even if his budget survives this season’s bloodletting, his is work that merits serious, sustained funding. Education advocates should be prepared to put a floor under Walker.
  • And if the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers is serious about restorative justice, which they have made a centerpiece of their ongoing contract negotiations with the district, they need to line up behind Walker in a big way. Doing so would send the signal that talk of race equity is more than window-dressing designed to give the talks a gloss of being about kids’ needs.

To catch those of you unfamiliar with Walker up to speed: Five years ago, several schools board members and district leaders – this was Bernadeia Johnson’s watch – pushed for the creation of an MPS department that would focus on black boys, who are persistently disadvantaged in a particular way. Other major districts, most notably Oakland, had charged into working intensively with African American male students and seen remarkable change.

The effort was met by the worst Minnesota liberal tone-deafness you can imagine. Why not ALL boys? Why not girls? Why single out one group for “special attention?” Wasn’t calling them black pejorative? To backers of the effort, the grumbling neatly illuminated the problem.

Why black boys? Because in 2013, the year all of this was transpiring, black males had a four-year graduation rate of 36 percent, an average GPA of 1.91 and 16 percent were suspended at least once. By a teacher corps that was 84 percent white and 77 percent female.

Black boys in MPS that year experienced almost 21,000 disciplinary referrals and lost 5,700 days of school to suspensions. Much of it because of nonviolent behavior that was seen as defiant.

Hell yes, black boys deserved “special attention.”

It was a slog, but in the end the office was created and a Roosevelt High School alum, Michael Walker, appointed to head it. He quickly recruited some talented black men to facilitate manhood groups called B.L.A.C.K., an acronym that stands for Building Lives Acquiring Cultural Knowledge. In this setting, students are referred to as kings.

Walker invited me to spend time in a couple of the groups, where I watched black men provide this next generation with the safety and the language to talk about their emotions in a way that equipped them to manage their behavior. Manhood and its place in all relationships is discussed explicitly, as is racism and the ways in which adults, consciously or not, use perceptions of black boys’ defiance to perpetuate it.

Preliminary numbers are in and they’re hopeful. Kings’ GPAs are up .25, while those of demographically similar students in grades 7-12 have fallen by almost the same amount. Attendance is up. Walker has been able to expand B.L.A.C.K. to four high schools, four middle schools and five elementary schools.

That’s not the whole of his vision, either. In order to have this program, the adults in a school must participate in training created by Walker. During the 2016-2017 school year 1,200 educators participated in Office of Black Male Student Achievement professional development on engaging black males.

The unconscious bias behind that “special attention” mentality? That’s under discussion, too. Teachers, Walker reports, increased their ability fall-to-spring to identify strengths in the community by 37 percent and their ability to use “asset vs. deficit model language and thinking” by 23 percent.

Yes, that’s right. Walker is emphatic in wanting teachers who interact with his kings to see them as royal: “My job is not to fix black boys,” he says. “My job is to fix the system that’s not serving them.”

And he wants those teachers interacting with the black men he’s brought into their schools. “We’re very intentional about getting black men into the classroom,” he says—and not just for the benefit of the kings. “The other reason I need black men in schools is I need people to see black men as teachers.”

So why am I fretting about Walker’s $1.2 million budget? Because it’s really crucial he continue to own this work.

A couple of weeks ago in this space I took the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers to task for proposing both that the district adopt restorative justice practices in schools and that it agree to allow teachers to exclude disruptive students from classrooms. (Missed it? “Black and Brown Students: Kumbaya, You’re Suspended”)

Among other things, the union has proposed that the district refuse to accept transfer students with a history of behavioral issues – which I can’t imagine is actually legal – and that students who act out may be permanently barred from the classroom where the behavior occurred. In other words, that problematic students be excluded from classrooms.

This is the opposite of restorative justice, which is the deliberate practice of creating a culture where everyone – youth and adult – is given a safe and structured place to reconsider an episode of troublesome behavior and explore what could go differently in the future. Ideally this introspection occurs among teachers and administrators, too.

It’s called restorative because the concept is to restore the relationships that are damaged when a student is disruptive or implicit bias fuels a bad classroom dynamic. This last piece is crucial, yet often gets overlooked when the adults in a school see restorative justice as a kinder, gentler type of in-school suspension wherein a defiant student is sent somewhere to cool down and comes back contrite and compliant.

By definition, demanding the district adopt rules excluding certain students from classrooms is not restorative. And I don’t know about you, but the fact that the folks who crafted this conflicting set of demands is positioning it as “bargaining for the common good” – winning a contract that supposedly puts kids first – scares me.

Let’s let Walker continue exalting his kings. And let’s get behind his effort to help the adults who interact with them every day see their regal gifts.



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