Pre-to-3: Young black men explore a pathway to early-childhood education
This latest Pre-to-3 column focuses on growing efforts to attract young black men in high school to a future in education. Past installments of Pre-to-3 can be found here.
Eric Horsley didn’t come from a family of educators, and he was the first in his family to walk across the stage to receive his high school diploma. But it hasn’t taken him long to pick up the language of the teaching profession.
He talks about examining assessment results, choosing the students he will tutor based on that data and finding books that target the particular early literacy skills where children need help. “I can see the growth,” he said in an interview.
A 2017 graduate of Eastern Senior High School in Washington, D.C., Horsley has spent the past school year working in a pre-K classroom at Neval Thomas Elementary School as part of the Leading Men Fellowship, a project of The Literacy Lab designed to attract young black males into early-childhood education and support them as role models in their communities.
“We want them to see this as a college and career pathway,” said Ivan C. Douglas Jr., a program manager at The Literacy Lab.
According to federal data, black males make up only 2% of the teacher workforce and likely much less in preschool and the early grades. But studies continue to show better educational outcomes for black male students when they have a black male teacher, compared with when they don’t — including being less likely to drop out and more likely to apply to a four-year college. Referring to research by Seth Gershenson of American University and three co-authors, David Figlio, dean of the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University, wrote in this article that the benefits are especially strong for black males from low-income homes.
“For instance, they find that a disadvantaged black male’s exposure to at least one black teacher in elementary school reduces his probability of dropping out of high school by nearly 40%. This estimated effect is not just statistically significant, but also highly educationally relevant,” he wrote.
School leaders also recognize how this mismatch affects their students.
“As a leader of a 98% African-American student body, I feel it is important for students to find someone they can see themselves in, look up to and aspire to be,” Royston Maxwell Lyttle, the principal for 1st-3rd grades at the Eagle Academy Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., wrote in an Education Post piece. “Boys who grow up with only female teachers and role models don’t have this opportunity.”
The Leading Men Fellowship began in the 2016-2017 school year with 10 fellows, followed by 10 the second year. This fall, the cohort will expand to a total of 30 in six sites — D.C, Baltimore, Richmond, Va., Kansas City, Mo., Springfield, Mass., and Milwaukee. The fellowship, which initially launched as part the District of Columbia Public Schools’ Empowering Males of Color effort, is a recent winner of the Zaentz Early Education Innovation Challenge, a project of the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
That award, as well as a recent anonymous donation of $200,000, will allow the program to spread to additional sites, Ricardo Neal, the director of innovation and strategy for The Literacy Lab, said in an interview. A former administrator at Eastern High, he recruited Horsley to the program.
Horsley was coasting toward the end of his senior year and “in the realm of trying to figure out” his next steps after high school when Neal asked him to consider applying for the fellowship. The process began with writing an essay about the low representation of black males in the teaching workforce and controlling one’s own destiny. He found himself “pouring out” his thoughts and feelings into the writing and then received a phone call that he had been accepted into the program.
During their preparation, the fellows learn about child development, brain functions and understanding a child’s attention span. “Were they training me to be a doctor or something?” Horsley said he asked himself. “I just got out of school.”
The fellows are assigned to one class for an entire school year to help them build relationships with the students and the classroom teachers. Horsley says he “clicked” right away with pre-K teacher Kendra Mills.
“He just jumped right in,” said Mills, standing outside her classroom during an encouraged naptime for the students.
The fellows also work with master coaches and meet once a month for professional development in the SEEDS model, which stands for sensitivity, encouragement, education, development through doing and self-image support.
Creating a ‘local pipeline’
While The Literacy Lab’s fellowship is focusing specifically on recruiting young black men into early childhood education, other initiatives targeting high school students have also set diversifying the education workforce as a goal.
“We are very focused on creating a local pipeline of professional educators, wherever that may be. The extension of that says that if your community is diverse, your teaching force is diverse,” Joshua Starr, the CEO of Phi Delta Kappa (PDK) International, said in an interview. A professional organization for educators, PDK includes Educators Rising, which allows high school students to learn about the teaching field, the process of earning a credential and what it’s like to plan lessons. They can also earn microcredentials as they acquire skills in the field.
He noted that while only 4% of high school students express interest in the teaching profession specifically, according to the ACT’s Condition of Future Educators report, he added that when asked if students want to be part of a mission or help their communities, the percentages of students agreeing are much higher.
The report also showed that fewer than a fourth of those interested in teaching were male, though the data do not specify race. And of those, fewer than 10% were interested in early childhood or the elementary grades.
Starr points to the Educators Rising student ambassador program as a tool for attracting more black men to teaching.
“We have to make the field of education sexy again,” Tamir Harper, an Educators Rising ambassador who graduated this year from Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, said in an interview. He added that there was a time when a black educator was considered an upper middle-class person who had “made it.”
Harper will start American University in Washington, D.C., this fall, where he’ll major in education with plans to eventually teach English and African-American history. Having a black male English teacher and a black male Spanish teacher helped Harper see himself in that role. And he plans to teach in Philadelphia schools.
“I am a product of this damaged system,” he said. “I can’t preach about it, if I don’t do some work in it.”
And he’s trying to encourage others to follow the same path. “I need a village of black male educators and white educators,” he said. “We don’t just want teachers; we want skilled educators.”
In his article, Figlio notes that, according to research, the greatest barrier to increasing the numbers of non-white young people who go into teaching is completing college. Increasing the numbers of non-white college students who earn bachelor’s degrees would increase the potential pool of minority educators and likely reduce the “mismatch between students and teachers” in K-12, he writes.
That’s why as part of the Leading Men Fellowship, Horsley and other fellows also learn about completing financial aid forms, living healthy lifestyles and other areas of support that can help them be more successful in college.
While some fellows are also enrolled in classes while they are working as tutors, Neal says his team actually prefers students to spend a year in the “residency” before they go to college. Some of the fellows plan to continue working in early childhood. One wants to be a middle school art teacher, Douglas said, adding, “They’re still in the education space, and that’s a success for us.”
‘A male figure’
Horsley is interested in interior design, but he also said he wishes he could “move up with my kids” as they go into kindergarten.
Paraprofessional Markita Gray, who works in same classroom, said that Horsley provides her support throughout the day, spends time making vocabulary flash cards when he’s not working with students, and “is a male figure for them because of a lot of them don’t have that.”
And he knows when to interject his personality into the curriculum, like having students complete a familiar rhyming saying — “Cat, hat, these two rhyme. Cat, hat, these two rhyme. Cat, hat, these two rhyme. They sound the same at the end” — with a resounding “boom!”
“I modernized it for the kids,” Horsley said. “I grab their attention by doing SEEDS my way.”
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