Michael McMillan

Part of a year-long series, presented by The American and the Brown School at Washington University, on changing the narratives and outcomes of young black males in St. Louis.

As the new school year begins we need to see what has changed in our educational system, especially for African Americans.

For the first time in many years, the responsibility of educating students is returning to the states. The U.S. Department of Education has approved Missouri’s state plan for public education under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Missouri’s plan is a commitment to ensure that all students have equitable access to high-quality education to help prepare them for success in school and life. Implementation of the plan begins now. 

The plan calls for the inclusion of stakeholders, most importantly parents. To help reach that goal, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has outlined strategies addressing access, opportunity and equity, as well as support and development for teachers and leaders.

To diagnose and address sources of inequity and school failure and, thereby, TO support the success of all students, Missouri has committed to measure the following indicators: the high number of students not meeting proficiency, lack of adequate and relevant preparation of high-quality educators, extremely disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates, poor early postsecondary opportunities, chronic absenteeism, and not embedding cultural competencies in all school practices.

Public schools belong to the community, and the community engages educators to watch over the social, emotional, and academic performance of all students. The dilemma is: who is responsible for the high number of African-American students not being able to meet social, emotional and academic expectations? And what are the reasons?

In the last two years, the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis has been involved as an advocate of education equity, representing the voiceless as the state developed its education plan to submit to the federal government. This work has been invaluable in many ways, but most importantly it created the communications needed for us to continue to advocate in a meaningful and proper way. It’s our responsibility to follow up, making sure that our schools are actually educating all of our students, and the ESSA plan is a great start to hold everyone involved accountable. 

The Urban League plans to follow up by mobilizing and organizing parents, as well as other community allies. The agency plans to provide a platform to share information, which will allow us to learn together and collectively demand accountability from schools to ensure that all students succeed.

The vision that all students must learn at high levels, equipped with the skills and knowledge to successfully compete in today’s global economy, can be realized if students are afforded a rich and demanding instructional environment in which priority is assigned to strong and well-prepared teachers and school leaders.

The Urban League is addressing the cause and effect of student failures, working along with DESE to impact policy changes. The plan is to design a strand of training and development for 65 principals of schools with the lowest 5 percent in student performance, mostly from urban districts such as Saint Louis Public Schools.

In the past, such actions were determined solely by the district and DESE. However, this process provided us the opportunity to advocate from within, based on data on the needs of principals in the lowest 5 percent of schools, and to identify strong leaders for those schools. We need leaders who work to eliminate achievement gaps by identifying and addressing personal and institutional bias and barriers and by providing strategies to ensure all students have equitable access.

ESSA provides an opportunity to set large-scale goals, provide educators with the support they need, and hold schools accountable when service is not being delivered as designed to meet students’ success. Simultaneously, parents need to be organized and should hold schools, districts and DESE accountable.

The Urban League was obliged to embark on new initiatives such as Save Our Sons because of the high demand of unemployed and undereducated black males who were left behind due to a second-rate education. The young males enrolled in Save Our Sons were educated throughout the St. Louis region, which indicates that the black male dilemma of suspension, low academic performance and dropouts pervades almost all school districts in the region. 

Save Our Sons provides soft skills training and wrap-around services, such as HiSet/GED Training, clothing assistance and food pantry to African-American males in need. Since it started in 2015, more than 500 men have gone through the program and found jobs with a 90 percent success rate.

One of our recent success stories is Ventarius Johnson, a 17-year-old who was orphaned in his early teens and dropped out of high school. After enrolling in Save Our Sons, Johnson was able to find both gainful employment, get promoted in his first three months on the job, and finish his HiSet/GED. There are many other young men who are fulfilling their purpose through the program.

While the staff of Save Our Sons works with young African-American men who are falling through the cracks of our educational system, we also must advocate for our children who are still enrolled in the public school system. Under the ESSA plan, equity concerns are highlighted in school principals’ performance accountability, so they can now be detected and addressed. The Urban League is prepared to support the community in this life-changing endeavor. Together, we can and will make a difference.

Michael P. McMillan is president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis and the St. Louis American Foundation’s 2018 Stellar Performer in Education.

“Homegrown Black Males” is a partnership between HomeGrown STL at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis and The St. Louis American, edited by Sean Joe, Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor and associate dean at the Brown School, and Chris King, managing editor of The American, in memory of Michael Brown.

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