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Rising Up

Experts are finding ways to address the persistent achievement gap faced by African-American males.

By Jonathan Sapers, Scholastic

Two students Ron Walker encountered while working as a young teacher in Philadelphia led him to start the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color. The first, Wendell Holiday, told Walker proudly in his seventh-grade social studies class that he wanted to be president of the United States. A few weeks later, he was killed in gang fight.

The second was ninth grader Kevin Johnson, “another young man of substance, intelligent, personable.” Walker lost track of Johnson after moving to Boston in 1978 to become a principal in Cambridge. Then in 1986, a letter arrived. It was marked with a serial number from the penitentiary where Johnson was imprisoned for life without parole. The two men began a long correspondence that culminated in 2006 with Walker accepting an invitation to speak at the prison’s school graduation—Johnson worked as an assistant to the school’s principal. It was a tearful reunion, and Walker was bowled over by the speech of the school valedictorian. “He motivated me so much,” Walker says. “His words were, he had to come to the penitentiary to really understand why education is important. It was penetrating.”

When Walker got back to Massachusetts, he secured a grant to start a “series on educating black boys” at a local college, a first step to the coalition’s creation.

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