One of the newest units inside Minneapolis Public Schools headquarters is the Office of Black Male Achievement, and in July Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson selected a longtime employee, Michael Walker, to head it.
Here’s the outline of Walker’s mission: reduce chronic absenteeism, lower disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates, raise persistently low four-year graduation rates and boost the numbers taking advanced placement and honors courses.
It’s a huge task, one Walker says will take a citywide effort. But the former athlete and coach said he also wants to change how young black men in the district view themselves.
“What I see my work as is building self-worth for the young men, having them develop a confidence in themselves so they can be successful, showing them many different opportunities and experience so that they can understand there’s more to this world, to their lives, than what’s just on their side of town,” he said.
Walker grew up in Minneapolis and graduated from Roosevelt High School in 1994, and he has maintained close ties with the school as an adult.
He returned to the school in 1999 as a volunteer boys basketball coach. In 2006, he became the school’s AchieveMpls Career and College Center coordinator. Walker was hired as Roosevelt’s dean of students in 2009 and in 2011 became an assistant principal.
In early August, Walker — the one and only current employee of his new office — had been in his new position all of two weeks, but he agreed to talk about the work ahead. Here are highlights from that conversation:
SWJ: What do you see as the big factors — the issues that you have to focus on — that are holding young black men back in schools?
Walker: Well, there’s a lot to focus on. What I’m going to do is go out and engage the community in deciding these things to focus on.
I don’t want to be just the Office of Black Male Achievement going out there and starting programs, starting initiatives. I want to get buy-in from key stakeholders, and so my first initial task is to go out and engage the community.
And when I’m talking “community” I’m speaking of, obviously, community organizations, the families of the students, the parents, the students themselves and then the educators. We all will have great knowledge to bring into this discussion, and once we find out where there’s overlap, what the themes are, then we can get buy-in from all those groups and attack this together.
Do you think that there still needs to be more work done to understand the root causes of the disparities, or do we have that information already?
There’s definitely information out there, but there’s more to learn.
The other piece is sometimes we focus on the negative aspects of it, and I think we should go out and talk to the students who are being successful, who have proven to be achieving as we look at the success indicators, and gain that knowledge and that information from them so that we can replicate that for the students who may not be doing that.
So, I think we need to look at it through both lenses.
Have you talked with the superintendent about specific deliverables? Are there certain goals you’re trying to meet?
We haven’t made it to that full stage, yet. That’s the part that we’re still developing. I’m only two weeks in on the job, so we are still in those conversations.
I know that folks are looking for the answers to everything, but we have to remember this situation didn’t happen overnight, so it isn’t going to be resolved overnight, either. It’s going to be a process.
You were a student in Minneapolis Public Schools. How does your own experience inform the work you’re going to be doing?
I think it informs it a lot, especially growing up in the city of Minneapolis, attending Minneapolis Public Schools. I will lean on some of my personal experiences and also some of the experiences of other students or other groups of guys I grew up with, as well, and use that as some of the blueprint for this work.
But, again, the students are now facing a different challenge than what we were in my time, and it’s important that I hear their voices as well. I want to make sure I connect with the young people who are in our school system today and hear what their struggles are, what their concerns are.
And then the flipside of that: I want to hear about the ones who are being successful and how we can get other students to follow in their footsteps, follow their path. Because they have actually done it, so they can relay this information to other, younger students in our system. That’s what I’m looking at.
What are you going to be doing on the first day of school?
I’m used to being in the building with students, so my idea is to be out in some school, some form or fashion, meeting students, shaking hands, greeting them with a smile, building relationships, building connections right away.