Wisconsin has some of the most pronounced education gaps between black and white students. In 2012, a group of suburban Milwaukee school districts, along with Concordia University in Mequon, launched a collaboration to address those racial disparities — the Closing the Achievement Gap Consortium.
The program is a three-day, overnight camp at Concordia. It has two main goals: to build students’ self-esteem and set them on a path toward college.
“This is about empowering them to achieve and do more,” says Randee Drew, who directs the program. Drew is a former professional football player who now is a coach at Whitefish Bay High School. “We’re constantly putting [the students] in front of black execs, black entrepreneurs, and black businesspeople.”
About 130 African American boys who go to high school in Milwaukee suburbs, Racine and Kenosha, are participating in the summer program this year. Most are nominated to participate by leadership at Closing the Achievement Gap Consortium member schools.
It’s structured as a four-year experience, with students returning each summer during high school. In the final year, students take on leadership roles and qualify for a $500 college scholarship.
This year’s itinerary kicked off with a speech from Wisconsin’s first black lieutenant governor – Mandela Barnes. Later in the week, students took field trips to Northwestern Mutual, along with Miller Park and Fiserv Forum to learn about the business side of Milwaukee’s professional sports teams.
When they’re not on field trips, students are engaged in conversations with mentors. Sean Crider, a Homestead High School teacher and African American Male Initiative mentor, led a discussion about identity.
“What we’re gonna be talking about today is yourself — exploring yourself, who you are, how the world perceives you,” Crider said. “Answer these questions — what type of stereotypes do young black men have to deal with? Do you feel like you have to act a certain way?”
The students break into small groups to talk about it.
“People are always thinking we’re [into] gang violence and everything,” one student said. “That we’re not smart.”
Another students adds, “That we’re gonna have a bad future."
The 14 and 15-year-old boys easily list negative assumptions people might make about them. This program is about confronting that reality and helping students create a different narrative.
In a separate discussion, mentor Marv Jenkins asks students what they want to be when they grow up. The boys say they aspire to be financial advisors, accountants, engineers, real estate agents and artists. Some students say they simply want to be happy and successful.
“I feel like it helped me mentally ... where I can view different careers I can take,” says Michael Casey, an incoming senior at Case High School in Racine. “And just be more into what life has in store for me down the road.”
Casey wants to study business. And he’s thinking about coming back to this summer program in the future — as a mentor.
Mentorship may be one of the most immediate benefits of the African American Male Initiative. Achievement gaps won’t close overnight. But research shows that black boys are more resilient against negative influences when they have positive male role models.
Jeremy Kobe, a student at Nicolet High School in Glendale, says when he first came to this camp, it seemed weird to talk about feelings and personal issues with strangers. But the program grew on him.
“The counselors are a big key to this camp,” Kobe says. “Because not only do they teach you how to be a leader. You can also go to them personally and just talk about what you want to do and all that.”
The African American Male Initiative is now in its fifth year. It's seen some initial success in steering students toward postsecondary education. All the students in the first graduating cohort of 12, who participated in the program all four years, will attend college or trade school this fall.
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