Coalition Focusing on Boys of Color Honors Outstanding Public Schools

by Joe Nathan

BEST Academy “has an impressive record of educating Black boys at the highest levels of achievement, outperforming all other schools in Minneapolis and across the state… BEST academy is a beacon of success and achievement.” — Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson

Why has a national group that identifies outstanding district and charter public schools, whether district or charter, just selected BEST Academy in Minneapolis as one of the nation’s most effective schools with African American boys? What are some common characteristics among the schools selected?  Here’s some of what I learned in talking with officials at three of the five schools recently recognized, as well as the national organization’s director.

Ron Walker, director of the National Coalition, is a veteran of 42 years in public education. He’s been an urban teacher and principal, and won numerous awards for his work.

Walker wisely is not interested in debates about which is better, district or chartered public school.  “We focus on our mission: to identify schools that are succeeding, whether district or charter, with young men of color. We want to inspire, strengthen, support and connect school leaders who are dedicated to the social, emotional and academic development of boys and young men of color. “

The national Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color was established with support from the Open Society Institute established by George Soros. Three of the schools the Coalition recognized late last month are district public schools. Two are charter public schools.

Jeffrey Hassan of the African American Leadership Forum and Superintendent Johnson of Minneapolis each wrote letters urging the Coalition to recognize BEST.

Part of Hassan’s letter referred to his grandson, Malik, who attended Best Academy.

“When Malik entered Best Academy in the 5th grade, he was scoring in the 60th percentile in statewide reading and math assessments.   By the time he graduated from Best Academy in the 8th grade, he was scoring in the 90th percentile in both reading and math.   In fact, his 8th grade all boys class scored 100% proficient on the statewide Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment reading test, and scored in the 80th percentile in math -  almost 50% higher than the statewide average.

When Malik entered high school in the 9th grade he tested out of 9th grade math and English, and was placed in advance level classes.”

Hassan volunteered time at BEST.  He explained, “We were able to see first-hand the caring and nurturing environment for the children and the high expectations both educationally and morally that were requested of the children.”

He concluded, “I don’t believe that we can find a better example anywhere  in this country of the dedication, determination and studied approach necessary to teach boys in general, and African-American boys in particular.

In addition to the comments cited above, Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson wrote that because of the school’s success, “Minneapolis Public Schools has recently initiated a partnership to replicate the best practices in four ‘Mastery’ schools over the next decade.”

The national Coalition recently honored BEST and four other schools, three of which are district public schools.  One of those district schools is Salk Elementary in Merrillville, Indiana.  Located about 45 miles south of downtown Chicago, Salk enrolls about 650 students, grades K-4.  About 60 percent of the student body is from low-income families, 46 percent are African American, 25 percent are white, 18 percent are Hispanic and the rest, “mixed.”

Principal Kara Bonin, a 22 year veteran of public education, told me that “culture and climate are key” to the progress that the school has shown.  “We model and encourage students to be respectful, be responsible and be safe.”  The school uses videos to help students understand what respectful, responsible behavior looks like.

Test scores are important at the school. The principal noted that 97 percent of students are passing the state’s tests.

But at Salk, “character also is very important.” The school has an extensive community service. Students have, for example raised money for a children’s hospital and carried out food drives.

The school also honors student progress.  Bonin pointed out that “Every Monday we have a school wide meeting where we celebrate student achievements.”

Similar things are happening at another district public school that the Coalition honored, Devonshire Elementary in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Principal Suzanne Gimenez, who has been an educator for more than 40 years ago, was asked to transfer to the school five years ago.  Ninety-six percent of the mostly African American students are from low-income families.

The Coalition noted that the percentage of students at or above grade level on North Carolina’s math test has increased from 41.5% in 2008 to 93.1%.  The percent at or above grade level in reading increased from 43.9 to 64.4.

What accounts for the Devonshire’s continuing improvement over the last five years?

Gimenez pointed to several factors.  These included “celebrating student progress and success,” using an approach developed at Harvard to regularly visit classrooms and provide feedback to faculty, providing “lots of staff development about how to earn students’ respect and build relationships, and using data to refine and improve what’s happening in classrooms.”

The school also offers family a choice within the school.  Their children can either be in a classroom with young men and women, or “gender-based” classrooms (all young men or all young women).”

BEST also is an option for families.  Within a group of buildings in North Minneapolis, families can choose, among others BEST, a K-8 school enrolling about 240 students, “Sister Academy” or Harvest (which enrolls young women and young men).

Latest Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) statistics show that 99.4 percent of BEST’s students are African American, and that 93 percent come from low-income families (Statewide, about 10% of Minnesota’s students are African American and 37 percent come from low-income families).

Latest MDE data also show that 77 percent of BEST students are proficient in math compared to 62 percent statewide.  Seventy-three percent of BEST are proficient in reading compared to 76 percent statewide.

In science, the percentage of BEST students who are proficient has increased from 17.9 percent to 43.3 percent since 2009.  Statewide, latest figures show 50.5 percent of students are proficient in science.  BEST Academy director Eric Mahmoud told me, “we are not satisfied with science.  We have more to do.” He pointed out that the most recent tests show that 56.8 percent of BEST 5th graders are proficient in science, compared to 57.7 statewide.

In words that are strikingly similar to what I heard from the other principals who were honored, Mahmoud also explained that, “probably the most important thing is to believe in the students’ capacity to learn and do great things.”

(Full disclosure – the Center for School Change, where I work, has partnered with BEST as part of a Cargill Foundation funded project over the last several years.)

With national recognition and local requests to expand, it appears that more youngsters will gain from the kind of culture, expectations and respect that Mahmoud and other honored principals see as vital for progress.

Minnesota Commissioner of Education Brenda Cassellius and Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson will join in honoring BEST Academy later this week: Friday, May 10, Heritage Park YMCA 5:15 – 7:30 (Program at 6 PM), 1015 4th Avenue North, Minneapolis, 55405.

Recently more than 600 people gathered in Chicago to honor the three schools mentioned above.  Also honored were Merrillville High School, a district high school in Indiana, and Thurgood Marshall Academy, a charter public school in Washington, D.C.   As the Coalition noted, “These five schools have demonstrated a consistent track record of achievement amongst their male students of color… They know that success is not an accident.”

Congratulations to the schools that were honored, and thanks to the Coalition for recognizing and sharing their success.

Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions are welcome, and he can be reached at joe@centerforschoolchange.org.