COSEBOC director: Boys of color still 'woefully behind' in the classroom

Founded in 2008, the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color (COSEBOC) is a national member organization based in Boston and dedicated to helping school and district leaders advance the education of male black and Latino students. "What’s clear and present is the data," Executive Director Ron Walker tells us, " that indicates in a lot of the lagging indicators that black and brown boys and young men still are woefully behind."

As part of its mission, the COSEBOC provides professional development, assists in Common Core implementation, and has a hand in President Barack Obama's My Brother's Keeper initiative. Additionally, in Philadelphia, the organization works with the Sankofa Passages Program, a "rites of passage" initiative that works with teams of 44 young men, pairing them with two full-time mentors between the ages of 25 and 50 who act as a positive, professional role model, as well a math and English Language Arts teacher.

To learn more about the organization, we recently sat down with Walker, who discussed the importance of reaching black and Latino males early, disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline, and the significance of poverty on their outcomes.

EDUCATION DIVE: One of the big areas of focus recently as far as the achievement gap between boys of color and their white counterparts is the disproportionate punishment that has been linked to the school-to-prison pipeline.

RON WALKER: You’re right. Typically, the traditional approach to discipline was if I, as a black or Latino male, caused some kind of infraction of rules or policy, the process is to suspend, or some sort of punishment that may take me away from my learning environment. If it continues, usually the next step is for some action that may refer me so that I might end up in special needs for behavioral actions. If I’m a boy coming to school, and I start my year off and I get suspended or I get in trouble because of an infraction that may not be measured with my white or Asian counterparts in the same way, that forms a pattern that creates the beginning of that pipeline. And we see that starting as early as elementary school, when we know that data from the national Department of Education, from the Justice Department, says the suspensions start as early as Kindergarten or preschool. When you begin to have that kind of track record, usually it typically doesn’t end up in the best kind of results. That’s the narrative that we are challenging and wanting to change.

In that regard, some of the professional development we do—we might have a restorative justice training, such as what we did in Springfield, Massachusetts, with 35 school counselors. Restorative justice is an approach that counters the zero tolerance policies. Maybe I’m now involved in a peace circle, or maybe I’m now involved in peer mediation—but I’m involved, and the adults in the school are involved, in ways to look at how we discipline more proactively than in a negative fashion.

Yeah. From what I've read, a lot of the harsh discipline, especially when it starts that young, sort of creates this complex with the students that they’re “bad,” and then that kind of travels with them.

WALKER: Absolutely. What happens is it creates a very powerful mindset that starts early. I’ve been a principle at elementary, middle, and high school. I’ve seen it start as early as elementary school—you know boys typically have a certain kind of exuberance for learning. If I’m a teacher and I’m not aware of the context from which that young man comes, if I’m not tuned in to some particular strategies on how to engage that young man differently, and he gets off on the wrong foot at the start of the school year, when you think about the start of the school year, that should be the best start for all students, correct? But we have situations sometimes where students don't get off to a good start at the start of the school year. Moreover, if it happens to be sort of a family that carries some generational issues, that gets unfortunately communicated through the teachers. If we don’t think that these young men bring talent, strength, and assets—if we look at them through that negative lens—then you have the situation that we call that pipeline.

And there’s also the debate over the shortage of teachers of color, because these students don’t have role models who look like them to look up to in the schools.

WALKER: That is a tremendous issue. When you think about the national numbers, there’s something in the order of 2-3% for black males who are teachers, and perhaps even smaller if you look at the elementary school, where there’s even a much smaller number of black males in the teaching ranks. If you don’t see any black males, then you don’t believe that they’re teachers. They don’t see the models that we want them to see: A professional model, a good work ethic, a strong presence. That’s very, very influential.

I would say that it’s not only influential for the education and development of boys and young men of color, but it’s also influential and important for the entire student population, and for the teaching population, to see that there are teachers of color who are effective, who are successful, who know students well, who know how to get the most out of their students. All students benefit when you have a very diverse workforce that includes black male teachers.

Particularly in urban areas, a lot of black and Latino students tend to come from more poverty stricken areas and attend underfunded schools, so how much of addressing those students’ educational needs involves addressing those poverty issues, as well?

WALKER: The poverty issues certainly are the most entrenched and the deepest in the core of the inner city, but you can see it in the suburbs and you can obviously see it in the rural settings that we work in, as well. You typically think that it takes place in some of these big, hard-pressed cities when you have a lot of poverty in these neighborhoods. But I will say that even in the midst of poverty—and that is an issue for the nation to confront and eliminate, and the war on poverty’s been 50 years or more, so there’s still much work to do—excellence and student scholarship can exist. That’s where the role of the teacher, the principal, a unified community that believes that all of its children are valuable so you can see success, and I certainly have seen success even in the midst of poverty. Part of it is you have to have a mindset that says, “Even in the midst of poverty, I am going to make sure that I get the maximum amount of talent out of the student that comes to me."

Largely, I would say to you that the adults play a very important role in this. If you come with a deficit mindset and you say, “There’s poverty all around me. Oh, woe is the kids. They can’t possibly do well because of thus, thus, and so,” then you’re limiting their potential because there are stories time and time again where success rises out of poverty. You can’t negate the reality that poverty and under-resourced schools make a difference. Don’t get me wrong there. It matters when we don’t have equal funding or when we just depend on the property tax. But we do know that a strong teacher and a principal that is also equally committed can make a difference.

What do you think should be getting done immediately on a national, state, district, or individual school level to help improve the educational opportunities?

WALKER: Well, you know, I would say on a national level, as we see with My Brother’s Keeper, there has to be a national commitment to excellence in education for all students. I’ll give you an example: When I grew up, it was during the era of Sputnik. That’s what I heard about in 1954. I was in elementary school. Suddenly, we had a challenge from the Soviet Union at that time to take the lead in the space race. What happened was a national commitment to science, to math, to say that the United States of America was not going to be surpassed by another nation. The resources and the commitment and the national message was, “What do we need to do to maintain our position?”

We find out that the same thing has to happen now, and I’ll say this, as well: The difference then and now is you had much less of a minority population, much more of a homogeneous population at that time. There were minorities, of course, but not in the degree of Latinos or African-Americans as we have now, but the commitment still has to be the same. That’s where I think My Brother’s Keeper is making this national call, saying in order for America to maintain its position as world leader, it has to educate every student coming into the school house, and do it well, to the level where we will not be surpassed. That has to be the national mindset.

We can’t continue to have a school-to-prison pipeline and expect to remain the greatest nation on the face of the Earth. I think that kind of message coming out of the White House and coming out of the foundation world and from the corporate world, knowing the kind of skills and talents that they need, has to continue to permeate so that it’s not only My Brother’s Keeper, but that we’re keeping all students, as well.

Want additional information on the COSEBOC? The organization's website offers a document with strategies, examples, indicators, best practices, and more titled “The Standards and Promising Practices of Schools Educating Boys of Color."


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Filed Under: K12 Policy & Regulation
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