There are a number of recent initiatives focused on the health and well-being of students, especially students from racially and linguistically diverse communities. The social–emotional needs of students must be addressed first before solely focusing on academics. The dual pandemic of COVID-19 and racial reawakening sparked an interest in how students were coping, or not, inside and outside of their classrooms. The Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color (COSEBOC), founded by Ron Walker, is an organization that committed to this cause long before the pandemic. Walker started this work after a long, successful career as a teacher and principal, and his journey is an example of how it is never too late to do something, to do more, with the resources we have to improve the lives of others. I was fortunate enough to first hear Walker’s story and then interview him in order to learn more about his organization, the why behind the work, and how we can better support this generation of male students.
The mission of COSEBOC is to connect, inspire, support, and strengthen school and community leaders who are dedicated to the affirmative social, emotional, cultural, and academic development of boys and young men of color.
How Was COSEBOC Started?
Interestingly enough, COSEBOC was started by an invitation, in September of 2006, for Walker to speak at a state penitentiary in Frackville, Pennsylvania. A former student of his, Kevin Johnson, had spoken highly of Walker and the impact he’d had on his life. Walker accepted the invitation and was the speaker at a ceremony for inmates who had passed their General Educational Development test (GED) and earned college credits. Kevin Johnson was the valedictorian. That day, Johnson affirmed, “Although I’m incarcerated, I’m a felon, and I might not ever see freedom, I’m liberated because I’m educated.” It was then that Walker knew his career had been preparing him for the next assignment: to do something. Walker states, “There’s a lot of Kevin Johnsons out there who have gifts, talents, strengths, are very intelligent, and could be successful.” Countless data points are collected that point to boys of color being “at risk” for being retained, suspended, expelled from school, or dropping out for various reasons. The US Department of Education collects data on absenteeism, suspension, and retention of English learners (ELs), students who make up approximately 10% of the K–12 population.
Of all the students retained, about 14% were ELs. Of those who received one or more out-of-school suspensions, 3% were male ELs and 1% female ELs. Males who are ELs experienced an average of 19 days of lost instructional time due to out-of-school suspensions, compared to females who are ELs, who lost an average of six days (US Department of Education, 2021). Students should not be considered “at risk” for failure due to their race, gender, home language, or zip code, but unfortunately oftentimes they are. What COSEBOC continues to do is to educate not only boys of color but also the communities that serve them. It’s a nationwide organization that educates district and school leadership teams in what Walker refers to as affirmative development: cultural and academic development of boys and young men of color.
The Importance of Legacy
In a presentation Walker gave to my cohort of Rennie Education Policy Fellows, the importance of his community could not be emphasized enough. Seeds of purpose were planted early. While growing up, he explained, he and other young men had role models, which contributed to them having a strong sense of community. He also shared how intentional his parents were about the importance of education. Walker shared that his mother, Delores, read Langston Hughes’s poem “Mother to Son” to him.
Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
For Walker, this poem represented the importance of being persistent, though trials will come as one grows into adulthood. Walker went on to graduate high school and attend and earn a degree from Lincoln University. The same university that Langston Hughes attended. Coincidence?
What’s important to think about and ask ourselves is who are the people—parents, family members, community members—who are serving as mentors and encouragers? Who are the adults who see potential and endless possibilities for students when students might not see them in themselves? What metaphors can be drawn from the poem? How is the advice given relevant today?
One of the offerings that COSEBOC offers is a professional learning course entitled DRUM—Discovering Rituals, Understanding Manhood. At a time when African American studies is under fire in certain states, COSEBOC has been intentional in its efforts to educate and affirm the identities of its students.
Walker describes the DRUM course as a researched-based framework and program designed to raise rates of attendance, graduation, and postsecondary college/career success among male middle and high school students of color. Grounded in African/Indigenous rituals, manhood development, and hip-hop pedagogy, DRUM is particularly effective with helping students who are experiencing a range of challenges that impede their academic and social success. The DRUM approach aims to strengthen students’ academic achievement and develop an affirmative social, emotional, and cultural identity.
Some of the aforementioned challenges experienced by students are exactly what the DRUM course aims to dismantle. A similar course, Footprints and Footsteps, is designed for adults who work with boys and young men. By supporting adults to cultivate critical thinking, literacy, and effective communication skills, the course prepares them to better support their students.
Since the start of the pandemic, COSEBOC has offered virtual events where guest speakers are invited to present, answer questions, and pose solutions to various problems. I had the opportunity to attend a session with Dr. Pedro Noguera and a few weeks later another with Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings. What I took away from those sessions and my time interviewing Ron was the need to encourage one another, to stay vigilant, and prepare ourselves as much as possible.
Gathering of Leaders conducted annually (in person) from 2007–2019, involving more than 6,000 adults and 1,500 youth from 43 states and Washington, DC
Interactive online events offered in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and attended by more than 1,200 educators and community leaders
Training workshops to improve education for students of color directly serving more than 900 student leaders, educators, and parents and benefiting more than 11,000 students
Rites of Passage model program piloted in Philadelphia with about 1,000 secondary school students and disseminated to other schools and districts
Projects to promote a greater youth voice in education by young men of color piloted in Boston
Projects to summarize community perspectives of racial equity issues in New England schools conducted for the Nellie Mae Education Foundation
Since this year’s PTM series is centered on student experiences, it would be very remiss of me to neglect to tell you Ron is also a writer. One way he has honored his parents, Solomon and Delores, is by writing about them and their influence on this life. Published by American Reading Company, he has written a memoir, Solomon’s Plan: A Gift of Education from a Father to His Son (2018), and he is currently writing Delores’s Dream: Delayed but Not Denied. Our time with students may be short, but our impact is timeless. Thank you, Ron, for your service to the profession and commitment to boys and young men of color.
US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics (2021). “English Learner Absenteeism, Suspension, and Retention.” https://ncela.ed.gov/sites/default/files/legacy/files/fast_facts/202109-Del4-4ELAbsenteeismSuspensionandRetention-508.pdf
Ayanna Cooper, EdD, is the Pass the Mic series editor and owner of A. Cooper Consulting. She is the author of And Justice for ELs: A Leader’s Guide to Creating and Sustaining Equitable Schools (Corwin) and is currently a Massachusetts Education Policy Fellow at the Rennie Center in Boston (2022–2023).