This is what change looks like. Real change. These men represent the vanguard of a new movement taking hold in South Carolina. They are the foot soldiers tasked with reordering a landscape ravaged in many places by ineffectiveness and indifference. But instead of destroyers, they are builders, trying to win hearts and minds. Not only win them, but shape them, mold them, improve them. These men from the College of Charleston, if they have their way, are out to transform no less than the very face of education.
by Mark Berry
Photos by Vince Musi
Something is rotten in the state of South Carolina. Few would disagree that there is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportion playing out within our educational system, county by county, city by city, school by school.
Some call it the educational gap. Others, the achievement gap. Either way, they’re talking about a chasm, and it’s growing wider, ever wider, between white and minority students and their academic performance in the classroom. Soon, the Palmetto State will be able to boast of its own Grand Canyon, except this one you don’t want to put on a postcard wistfully wishing you were here.
Educational pundits, politicians, administrators, teachers, concerned parents – they all argue about both the causes of the problem and the ways to address it. Attend some of the local school board meetings around the state, and you’ll witness verbal fireworks worthy of reality TV. The cacophony of finger pointing, despair at slipping further behind and, at times, the self-righteous indignation is overwhelming, almost comical in its seeming absurdity in the face of such challenges. However, through all the combative discourse, there is a sincerity present, a deep and pressing desire to lift South Carolina so that it’s not some bottom-dwelling state content with a view from the basement.
So what’s the fix?
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. When it comes to public education, there never is. The problems seem too complex, too politicized and too intricately woven into the very fabric of our society for any real change to take place.
Indeed, the state’s 2011 achievement statistics paint a very bleak picture for black students. In fourth-grade reading, 56 percent are considered “below basic” – a euphemism for failing (considering the other categories are “advanced,” “proficient” and “basic”) – as compared to 27 percent of white students. By eighth grade, that “below basic” percentage drops to 18 percent for white students, but only falls to 44 percent for black students. When it comes to math, the trend is worse: 39 percent of black students are failing in fourth grade, but that percentage actually jumps to 50 percent in eighth graders. Together, these figures add up to one big negative for black students by the time they reach high school: lower graduation rates and higher drop-out numbers as compared with their white classmates.
Yes, the statistics are demoralizing. But there’s hope.
Just ask the professors in the College’s School of Education, Health, and Human Performance. They see it, ultimately, as a people problem with a people solution. And they’re applying the old joke of how to eat an elephant (one bite at a time) to tackle an issue that has far too long been the actual elephant in the room.
“We have a responsibility to reach these kids in these failing schools,” observes Renard Harris, assistant professor of teacher education. “They are suffering there. And, remember, impoverished doesn’t equate to stupid. It’s a tough gamble if we ignore and marginalize these kids. We will all suffer.”
“Let’s look at some more numbers,” says Andrew Lewis, associate professor of health and human performance. “Approximately one-third of all students in South Carolina are African American, yet less than 1 percent of teachers are African American males. Statistics also point out that black males who have had at least one, just one, African American male teacher between pre-K and eighth grade are three times more likely to graduate high school and continue to post-secondary education.”
Let that statistic sink in for a minute. One – just one black male teacher – triples the odds for success.
Lewis leans forward, pointing his index finger in the air: “And this is where we can make a difference.”
The logic is simple: One equals 30, or, depending on the grade level, one may equal 100 or more. This would be the number of students affected by one teacher in one year. Now, multiply that number by five years, 10, 25, 30, and you see that one teacher can have a significant impact on a student population, in some cases, spanning generations.
“It is critical for us all to understand the importance that a black male teacher can have in our schools,” Lewis continues. “At times, they may serve as a father figure to those without one at home, or perhaps they’re simply a facilitator for telling kids that they can do it, too, whatever their dreams are. In all instances, they’ll be role models throughout the school – men who value education.”
In these professors’ eyes, it’s on the micro level that a macro-level problem can be solved.
Among the College’s various teacher recruitment efforts for diversity, the biggest contributor, in terms of sheer numbers, is the Call Me MISTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models) Program – a statewide initiative with 13 partner institutions specifically recruiting black men for teaching careers. The MISTERs, as they call themselves, are provided tuition assistance through loan forgiveness and scholarships. Their unusual name pays homage to Virgil Tibbs (played by Sidney Poitier) and his memorable demand for dignity and equal treatment in the 1967 classic In the Heat of the Night. Currently, there are 20 men in the Call Me MISTER Program
“However, we’re not looking for just numbers here,” says Floyd Breeland, program coordinator for the College’s Call Me MISTERs as well as a former state representative and a 33-year veteran of South Carolina public schools. “These young men have to convince us that they want to be teachers. We’re looking for leaders, community-minded men who are going to make a difference, and be good at their job.”
And that’s critical for any meaningful change to occur. The College is not worried simply about the how many, but the how: How to make them successful teachers. How to prepare them for the reality of the classroom, with kids coming from all walks of life. How to look at teaching as a career and not just as a job.
“A good teacher, as we all know,” Lewis points out, “can have an amazing impact on a child’s life. That good teacher, given the right resources and the right support, can close the achievement gaps we’re talking about. And those are the types of people we’re trying to recruit and produce through our teacher preparation programs at the College.”
Last May, the College graduated its first two MISTERs: Jimmy Freeman ’11 and Thomas Savage ’11. Both are now first-year teachers in the Lowcountry. Well-versed in the current numbers and discouraging trends for minority students, they know that behind those statistics, there are names, faces and personal stories. For many of their black students, it will be in their classes where adversity has a shot at becoming triumph. These MISTERs understand what is at stake and are ready to do everything in their power to fight for it.
Welcome to the front lines of education.
They all walk at an angle. Forward leaning, they carry backpacks bulging with textbooks, folders and loose papers, crammed in with the secret contraband only middle-schoolers can know. What might pass as a familiar scene of school-days drudgery changes upon closer inspection. These bent figures are laughing, shouting, almost squealing as they shuffle along toward the school’s entrance. There’s an energy here, a spirit almost matching the 10-foot metal sculpture of dancing children on the school’s front lawn. As they tramp into Summerville’s Rollings Middle School of the Arts, a message emblazoned in white lettering against a purple background reminds them that their school is “Where Learning Is an ‘Art.’”
For Mr. Savage’s first-period students, they take a left down the main hall and then an immediate right through a door marked EXIT in red. Outside again, they go to the first trailer on the left, labeled T-7. Whereas the exterior of the trailer is drab, sporting a few rust stains and a dull maroon door, the interior is an explosion of color. Walls of purple and yellow (the school colors of the Rollings Knights) greet students as they come in and settle in their seats.
Between the giggling, flipping of pencils and idle chatter of Justin Bieber and Chuck Norris jokes, students unpack their bags and let their eyes wander the room. One bulletin board reads, “You are in Savage Country,” and goes on to spell out the “Laws of the Land”: integrity, responsibility, respect, participation and procedure. But perhaps the most telling message, one that conveys Savage’s teaching philosophy, appears on another board as well as on a small bumper sticker taped up near the back door. It’s a quote from author Judith Groch: “Those who have been required to memorize the world as it is will never create the world as it might be.”
There’s a throwback feel in here – like the 1970s meeting the 1870s – that’s somehow just natural for a social studies class engaged in learning South Carolina history. Without distractions from hallway noise and activity, Savage’s trailer possesses the ambiance of a one-room schoolhouse, minus the pot-bellied stove and wood-plank floors. Rather, his room has a grumbling window heating/cooling unit and thin brown carpet, which provides a surprisingly silent surface for Savage, much to his students’ displeaure, as he patrols the class.
An electronic buzzer bleats, and everyone turns to Mr. Savage, standing in the center of the room. In teaching, Savage understands that, at times, the messenger can be more memorable than the actual message. So, he dresses the part. Wearing a crisp, blue dress shirt, a vibrant yellow tie, navy pants and brown boat shoes, he is the picture of poise and polish.
As he begins his lesson, Savage looks his students directly in the eyes – his gaze intense, but somehow affable at the same time. Through this class period, he will have his students responding to an image on his SMART Board, participating in a question-answer session about colonial attitudes, acting out a frozen tableau (think three-dimensional picture with eighth-grade models), finishing a writing assignment and then peer-reviewing each other’s work. For more than an hour, Savage plays the role of ringmaster, lion tamer and tightrope artist – a constant circus act of keeping the students engaged, yet reining them in just before their hormonally challenged self-restraint begins to fade.
His students will tell you that although he isn’t the fun-loving, joke-cracking kind of teacher, he does have a good sense of humor, one that you have to be pretty quick and pretty smart to catch. To them, his style is serious, thoughtful and sincere, and because of that, they feel he’s approachable in ways that most other teachers aren’t. In the same breath, however, they will also complain that he is “way too hard,” but there is a level of respect in that accusation, one in which even they take great pride.
Perhaps one of the most important moments during the class period occurs with “John.” It’s an interaction that may or may not happen with another teacher. But it reinforces the importance of the Call Me MISTERs and other statewide initiatives for diversifying the teaching ranks.
On the surface, John is a classic archetype found in almost every grade, in almost every school: He is The Jock, the one who appears to consider academics secondary, even tertiary, to his athletic and social exploits.
John comes into the room, loud and brash and with a swagger in his step. He makes his way to the back table and throws his backpack down, laughing with the other boys in the room. There’s a sense about John that he feels that everyone else is living in his world, not the other way around. Before the class starts, John holds court at his table, doling out praise and insults to the other students in the class, with his courtiers laughing and agreeing with each decree.
As the class begins, John hunches down in his purple-and-yellow hooded sweatshirt and whispers behind a clenched fist to the other boys dressed in their matching sports gear. Judging by his tablemates’ reactions, everything he mumbles is either enormously funny or enormously poignant to their very existence.
Hearing the muffled disturbance behind him, Savage turns and calls on John. John, of course, has no idea of the answer, let alone the question. Savage’s admonishment is not harsh, but is quick and decisive. He then continues his lesson standing next to John’s table in the back corner of the room and allows John to save face by answering correctly his next question.
For now, John’s table is the model of attentiveness.
When it comes time for writing, the class goes silent, each student scribbling his or her essay – save one. Momentarily, John looks lost and watches the other students writing. He raises his hand and calls over to Savage – his voice respectful and devoid of any eighth-grade bravado.
Savage pulls a seat up close to John and, in a low voice, talks him through the assignment about representative government. John, eyes down on his paper, nods in agreement, understanding now what’s being explained. A smile spreads across his face, and he begins to write. As Savage stands up from the table, John stops, looks up and says, “Thanks, Mr. Savage,” and goes back to furiously writing – his thoughts pouring out through his half-chewed pencil.
It’s interactions like that, just a few seconds here and a few minutes there, played out many times throughout the day, throughout the year, that have garnered Savage his school’s 2012 Rookie Teacher of the Year award. But it’s also something more than that. For John and the many other black male students in his classes, Mr. Savage cares – and now, so do they.
Everybody knows him. No matter the class, no matter the grade. Kids know Mr. Freeman.
As the black male teacher at Sedgefield Intermediate School in Goose Creek – and one of only two male teachers on staff – he would be memorable to kids. He’s an anomaly. Different.
As Freeman walks down the hall, the black string of his whistle bounces off his slacks, keeping perfect time to the rhythm of his strides, which you can’t quite call a strut, but there’s definitely a silent beat playing somewhere in Freeman’s head.
Students eagerly call out, “Hey, Mr. Freeman.” A few boys even race down the hall to give him high-fives and hear him call them, “my man.” Where Freeman treads, there are smiles, both outward and inward.
As he lines his own class up in the hallway for lunch, he pops the whistle in his mouth – a visual reminder to some that talking is not tolerated. The class is quiet as they march to the cafeteria – no small feat when dealing with 28 fourth-grade children. Freeman moves up and down the single-file line like a drill sergeant inspecting his troops. He’s perfected the art of talking to his kids with that whistle clenched in his front teeth, with just a slight sibilance framing his words. The ever-present whistle – the threat of that shrill sound ringing with his reprimand – is enough to keep everyone on task. In fact, Freeman has never blown it.
After lunch, he takes his class to the “playground”: an open field that stretches nearly 500 yards to a distant road. Only the rectangle of asphalt with its facing basketball goals gives any indication that this is a place for play. The kids don’t care, however. They spread out quickly, running and screaming, lost in the throes of their temporary freedom. Some linger, both boys and girls, snatching quick hugs and barraging Freeman with questions – about school, life, TV, anything and everything.
A group of boys rushes to a football lying on the ground. While one boy slings the ball with uncommon velocity and distance, another heaves it only a few feet back. The other boys laugh. Freeman bounds over to the boy and shows him the proper form, hands him the ball and steps back. This time, the football travels several yards – an achievement all of the boys acknowledge. And the game of catch picks back up, with that particular boy, his confidence building, throwing farther and farther each time.
Back in his classroom after recess, Freeman, in a voice calm and not particularly loud in spite of the commotion of the kids getting back in their seats, asks, “Hear my voice? Clap once.” Half of the students clap. The others fall silent, immediately aware that Freeman is ready to begin. For those that don’t quiet down, Freeman walks over and gives them The Look – “it’s something I had to get down pretty quickly,” he explains with a mock face of anger. When The Look doesn’t work for one particularly talkative girl, he asks her to stand. Begrudgingly, eyes rolling, she gets up from her desk and stands (she’ll be there a while).
Freeman moves about the room, like a boxer dancing in the ring. To a nearby student, he hands a blue coffee mug, marked “College of Charleston School of Education, Health, and Human Performance,” full of popsicle sticks with each student’s name.
“Who can give me the peanut butter?” he asks, closing his eyes and pointing to the boy holding the cup, who pulls out a name. Most of the students shoot their hands in the air anyway, even though they’ve not won this round in the lottery of popsicle sticks. They all know that Freeman is asking about the author. They also know that when Freeman asks them about “the jelly,” that they have to give him the main ideas from the book – and that “milk” is a supporting detail. The PB&J sandwich with the glass of milk is their class’ personal metaphor for interpreting literature, and it’s a metaphor only they grasp. Because they came up with it together.
“My class of fourth-graders spans all reading levels,” Freeman says, “from those that are reading well below grade level, to those who have already read every book on my shelf. Some of the students were struggling one day to understand the concept of main ideas, supporting details, context clues, and the sandwich metaphor just came out in our discussion. The sandwich was something they understood, and I ran with it. I’ve always told them that I’m new to this thing, so we’re going to grow and learn together. And we have and we are.”
Freeman relates with the kids in this school in ways that few others can or do. When one student talks about his brother who has “gone on a trip,” Freeman knows what it’s like to have a family member in jail and talks from the heart with him about choices, personal accountability and that jail is not a foregone conclusion for black males.
“For me, growing up, there weren’t a lot of male figures there,” Freeman says, no hint of the victim in his voice. “And there aren’t a whole lot of male role models for many of these kids, either. That’s a reality. So, I want to show them that there are other options. There’s nothing I haven’t seen. I know that they can do better – they have to.”
Freeman’s own life is an object lesson in accountability. Raised by his grandmother in a Charleston neighborhood he calls “unpredictable,” Freeman got in with the wrong crowd, failed his freshman year of high school and had to attend summer school. It was there that he started to see the road he was going down – a road traveled by many of his friends, some of whom later met violent and premature ends. From that point on, he focused on academics and volunteering in his community. And it was that spirit of caring and commitment that caught the eye of Steve Thomas, the first Call Me MISTER coordinator, who recruited Freeman to the College from Trident Technical College.
“Jimmy truly has a smile that will light up a room,” says Thomas, now Paine College’s dean of professional studies. “He has taken the lessons that life has taught him, learns from them and turns that energy into something positive for himself and those around him.”
And students definitely respond to that energy. You just have to look in their eyes, watch them grab for their notebooks and listen to them compete to answer Freeman’s questions. There is a pride in learning, in “knowing stuff,” as they might say. Education, like Mr. Freeman, is cool.
Cool like his 58 tattoos.
Since he was 19, Freeman has treated his body like a canvas, as if it’s yet another space to share his learning and creativity. There’s a smiley face on his right arm, a reminder that no matter what is happening, some part of him is always smiling. There’s also a tiger, an African killer bee, angels, stars and illustrated maxims to live by: “Family First” and “Smile Now, Cry Later.” But the one that means the most to him, centered squarely on his back, is two heavenly hands holding the word Blessed.
That’s because Freeman feels blessed to be where he is today– blessed to have been helped by others and, now, to be helping others.
Although his students may not know of the existence of that tattoo, the sentiment is certainly not hidden, even beneath Freeman’s jacket and dress shirt. His students understand, or maybe just have a vague feeling, that something sacred is taking place in their classroom – of knowledge passing, wisdom shared. They are in it together, as Freeman points out: teacher and student. And if more men like Thomas Savage and Jimmy Freeman become the Mr. Savages and Mr. Freemans in the lives of South Carolina’s kids, then there is great hope for narrowing the state’s achievement gap.
Remember, in this new math, one equals 30. And one, just one, can and will make all of the difference.