Endangered Species, the Black Male Educator

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By Stephen Jackson

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.
— Ralph Ellison

Over the past seven years, District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) stood at the epicenter of education reform. District residents saw marked improvements. Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s Capital Commitment Campaign is in full swing and enrollment is steadily climbing. Most recently, Henderson, with the mayor’s full support, announced the Empowering Men of Color (EMOC) initiative aimed at serving the population that historically experienced the least amount of success in our school system. Not only a strong statement acknowledging the District’s need to support Black and Latino men — in the same fashion they have every other subgroup in the city — it tells every household of color that their presence and existence is valuable and necessary to the city’s foundation and diverse culture. DCPS confronts a major challenge: Achieving the goals of the EMOC effort without a solid and significant cohort of strong Black male educators.

Research shows a strong link between the lack of male educators of color and the academic and behavioral performance of male students of color. According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, a mere 1.7 percent of the nation’s 4.8 million public school teachers are Black men. The majority of Black boys never have the opportunity to be taught by someone who looks like them or to experience an African-American male role model in their classrooms. Recently, the Albert Shanker Institute, a research think tank, endowed by the American Federation of Teachers released a report stating that they saw a drop in the number of Black teachers in nine cities including Washington, DC. According to the report, the largest drop of Black teachers took place in the district between 2003 and 2011. The percentage of White teachers more than doubled from 16 percent to 39 percent. Black teachers in the district dwindled from 77 percent to 49 percent – a 28 percent decrease in the number of Black teachers in a system that services 67 percent Black students.

While DCPS and other school districts around the country fail to recruit, to retain, and to develop Black male teachers, DCPS faces another serious challenge: retaining and developing Black male administrators, including principals and district-level leaders. Over the past 24 months, as the principal of the historic Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, I watched more than two dozen highly qualified and capable African-American male principals and central-office supervisors leave DCPS under the current leadership. They include: 16 principals, 2 instructional superintendents, and 10 central-office directors, managers and specialists. Unfortunately, most of the principals were replaced with White or Black females. A few were supplanted by a Black male principal or an assistant principal already working in the system. In addition, two Black male instructional superintendents were replaced with a Black female and a White male.

Black male administrators disappear in school districts like DCPS at extremely high rates. The “Great White Hope” syndrome has taken over urban school districts across the country, sending a message that male educators of color are not needed to properly educate and lead young men of color. New York City, Newark, New Orleans and other urban centers across the country provide evidence of this tragic phenomenon in which Black male educators disappear. The question is: Does DCPS leadership find necessary — or beneficial — for children of color to be taught or led by educators of color? ‘If “Black lives matter,” how can urban school systems make progress in the absence of Black men?

The glaring lack of cultural competency at the executive level exists in urban school districts across the country. Interestingly, you will find no Black male educators in senior leadership on the DCPS Executive team. Dr. Robert Simmons, Chief of Innovation and the leader of the EMOC initiative, recently left the district.

Why doesn’t DCPS retain and develop Black male leadership? In speaking with nearly all of the principals, instructional superintendents, and department heads who left DCPS, the vast majority cited a lack of respect for their opinions. They shared their experiences of being pushed out or encouraged to seek employment elsewhere; or simply terminated. Most of them left on their own accord. All expressed frustration and a lack of support from DCPS’s district-level leadership. Each shared similar stories regarding the lack of interest from central-office staff in supporting truly effective practices to drive student achievement. Many Black principals reported being told by district leaders that they “went off the reservation” when they advocated for the schools that they led. This was often given as a thinly veiled threat to the principal that their job was in jeopardy when they brought up issues around staffing, autonomy, equitable funding or even school readiness for August openings.

During one of our Principal Leadership Academy meetings, Chancellor Henderson excitedly talked about the initiatives she planned for the upcoming school year. In a most enthused and animated speech she told a room full of principals, “I charged my executive team to ramp it up. I challenged them to build a DCPS that they would send their children to!” When she asked her leadership team to stand up; it hit me — not one Black male educator served on her leadership team. In fact, not one person of color stood.

On Saturday, October 10, 2015, the 20th reunion of the Million Man March took place in Washington DC. Mayor Muriel Bowser, Reverend Willie Wilson, DC Councilman Vincent Orange and others delivered powerful speeches supporting the million men on the mall. Additionally, Minister Farrakhan spoke about the importance of education and the role that Black men play in educating our children. How can we ignore what is taking place in the District of Columbia with regard to Black male educators?

Few want to address — or even to acknowledge — the pervasive lack of diversity in DCPS and other urban school districts—the “elephant in the room” with regard to school improvement and turnaround efforts. There seems to be very little support for and confidence in Black male educators who do not have a platform or a voice to affect young men of color on a large scale. School systems turn their greatest advantage against them, disqualifying them from a movement to empower young men of color. Ironically, the annihilation of the Black male educator happens right here in Washington, DC, an issue that DCPS leadership must address.

I implore DCPS to realize that losing African-American teachers and administrators cripples and marginalizes young Black men. Every effort must be made to hire, retain and develop Black men in school- and district-level leadership positions. We cannot empower them if we don’t hire them.