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Foundation Friday: Spotlighting excellence in education  

The Center for Black Educator Development, the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization and InsideOut Literary Arts fight valiantly to even the playing field for students of color.

Improving the quality of education and quantity of Black educators has become a focal point for bettering opportunities within Black communities.

School is back in session, and students around the country are preparing to take the court and shoot their best shots at their educational goals.

For many African-American students though, they’re beginning the game with a disadvantaged scoreboard. Be it insufficient funding, outdated textbooks, understaffed schools, or inept teachers, the strikes against them can add up before their chance to play begins. And oftentimes, that results in a predetermined defeat as opposed to sweet victory.

That’s why the NBA Foundation supports organizations like the three we’ll spotlight in today’s piece. They strive to level the playing field for students in underserved communities and provide them with the tools, resources and guidance they need to let their brilliance shine. 

The Center for Black Educator Development, the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization and InsideOut Literary Arts recognize these disparities and work valiantly to even the playing field for students of color. Through pathways like poetry, peer mentoring and professional development, all three serve as powerful pillars for progression in the Black community. Each is headquartered in a major U.S. city (Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit), but through connection and collaboration, all are able to make long-lasting impacts that stretch nationwide. 

Black youth made up 7.4 million of 49.2 million students (just over 15 percent) enrolled in pre-K-12 public schools in Fall 2020.

For those in predominantly Black schools, access to college-level courses is vastly limited. Nationwide, just 29 percent of Black and Latino students are enrolled in at least one AP course. The disparities grow larger when it comes to postsecondary education, as just 12.5 percent of all college students were African-American in Fall 2020. 

We commend these organizations that, in recognition of these discrepancies, work tirelessly to reverse these trends and empower Black youth.

InsideOut Literary Arts

InsideOut’s mission is avowed within its name: the group equips students to communicate their inner sentiments to the outside world. The medium: writing. Through avenues like poetry, creative prose and spoken word, students are awakened to an entirely new world of self-expression.

The organization, which was founded in 1995, helps students aged eight to 19 find their voices through three types of programming: in-school, after-school (through its Citywide Poets program) and community-based.

Its outreach — as most endeavors do — began small. Since its inception, however, InsideOut has grown to serve over 30 schools primarily in the Detroit public schools system, which is 82 percent Black according to program director Michelle Bolofer.

“I think the youth in our community are able to self-reflect, express, and be able to move out into the world with a renewed sense of confidence,” said Bolofer, who is in her fourth year as director.

InsideOut’s approach is hands-on. It places writers-in-residence in partner schools, creating a direct line of collaboration between students and mentors. 

“An artist [would be] in a classroom residency with a particular class for 18 weeks,” Bolofer said.

Writers begin with community-building exercises to foster relationships with students, and remain engaged through the 18-week process as they work toward a final goal of publication. 

Outside the classroom, InsideOut also gives students a platform to share their artwork. 

“Every year we do a [poetry] slam that selects five students who are going to be the performance troupe for that year,” Bolofer said. “They do lots of different shows and workshops.”

In addition to the poetry slam, InsideOut hosts various panels throughout the year, including “Black Does Not Equal Trauma”, which it presents in partnership with Detroit’s Youth Development Center. It also sponsors the Detroit Youth Poetry Con at Wayne State University, and draws numerous supporters with its signature event, “If the River Could Sing.”

Click here to learn more about InsideOut Literary Arts and its literary excellence.

The Center for Black Educator Development

Activist Marian Wright Edelman once said “you can’t be what you can’t see.” And seeing a Black teacher at any educational institution is incredibly rare.

Just how rare?

Seven percent of public school teachers were Black in 2017-18, while that number plummeted to three in private schools. Just 1.3 percent of teachers are Black men. 10 percent of public school principals were Black in 2011-12, while 80 percent were white according to the Department of Education.

That means that about 280,000 additional Black teachers would be needed to be proportionate to the number Black students.

The presence of just one Black teacher in early childhood is invaluable. It reduces dropout likelihood among Black boys by up to 39 percent, while students who have multiple Black school teachers are 32 percent more likely to attend college, according to research published by John Hopkins University.

Started in 2019, The Center for Black Educator Development works to infuse the educational workforce with more people who look like the millions of Black students present in school systems.

“Our mission … is to rebuild a national Black teacher pipeline,” said Sharif El-Mekki, CEO of the center. “And we do that through three we call the three ‘P’s.’ One is around policy and advocacy, [the second is the] professional learning … and [third is] the most important part: Rebuilding our pathways for Black students to enter the profession.”

Black educators are integral to Black students’ development, serving as important role models for academic proficiency while providing relatable guidance to those they mentor. The impact of that relationship often stretches far beyond the classroom.

El-Mekki said that more Black teachers benefits not only students of all backgrounds, but non-Black colleagues.

“They’re learning cultural context,” he said. “They’re learning cultural proficiency. They’re learning how to communicate with families. They’re learning how to have higher expectations.”

Through its program, the center helps place interested students on a streamlined path to a teaching profession. It’s a 12-year pathway that begins with educational resources on the profession for high schoolers. Students are able to participate in Teacher Academies thanks to partnerships with various school districts, and gain important experiences through career and technical education (CTE) courses methodically designed for young, aspiring Black teachers.  

Students who participate in the Center’s CTE courses are eligible to apply to the Black Teachers Pipeline Fellowship, which helps to mitigate the costs associated with teaching degrees. Then, once students graduate and transition into the field, they receive a bonus from the center after five years of professional experience.

In addition to its teaching seminars, the organization works in conjunction with several others dedicated to a similar mission, ensuring that those in an already isolated field aren’t too lonesome.

This materializes in the form of events like the annual Black Men in Education Convening (BMEC). This year’s gathering will be the sixth, and is themed “Lifting As We Climb: A Call to Action, Collective Responsibility and Accountability.” Over 1,000 mentors will gather in Philadelphia for professional development, networking and support.

El-Mekki and colleagues’ vision has paid tremendous dividends in the workforce, and even inspired a student-led coalition called We Need Black Teachers, which stresses the importance of diversity in the classroom.

Click here to find out more about the Center for Black Educators’ life-changing work.

Kenwood Oakland Community Organization

Chicago has been home to many of the Black community’s finest representatives. Louis Armstrong, Michelle Obama, John Rodgers Jr. — they and many others have made their marks on the city’s legacy. 

But while some of the city’s Black areas are rife with wealth, others are downtrodden. Chi-town consistently places among the country’s most violent cities, as issues like gun violence and organized crime have plagued its neighborhoods.

Nonetheless, upward movement is constantly evident. Several residents have received reparations for the systemic racism that’s predated their lives, while dynamic youth movements have sprung up in numerous areas.

The city is a hotbed for growth.

Shannon Bennett, Executive Director of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, sees that potential, and works tirelessly alongside his team to help foster augmentation. 

While Kenwood is a South Side neighborhood, Bennett is originally from the city’s West Side. According to Bennett, people from his neighborhood didn’t generally mix with those of other areas.

But an event called “Umoja” (the Kiswahili word for unity), sponsored by a community organization, struck his heart at 19 years old. He began to realize the importance of togetherness amongst his people. That led to a career path, Bennett said, and he’s been involved with KOCO ever since.

The organization runs extensive programs that focus on impacting Chicago’s youth, including peer-to-peer mentoring, community service outreach, and homework assistance. KOCO also partners with the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago Public Schools to apply the Sustainable Community Schools model to several Chicago schools.

But the buck doesn’t stop with the children, according to Bennett. KOCO is dedicated to people, no matter their age. The organization offers invaluable assistance to the elderly, families in public housing and former convicts. 

One of Kenwood’s greatest attributes is its utilization of youth leaders. Bennett was one;. Khalil Cotton, 19 years old, is one too. He also came aboard after experiencing an Umoja night in sixth grade, and has risen the ranks from student to leader.

His first project was an out-of-state trip to aid those afflicted by Flint, Michigan’s water crisis.

“That was a good experience,” Cotton said. “I’ve always been a person that liked helping people. [After the trip] I felt like ‘oh yeah, I can do this for the rest of my life.’”

The organization continuously spreads its reach nationwide, and Cotton has reaped the travel benefits, having recently journeyed to places like Denver, CO and Washington D.C. 

Cotton, who’s also part of Kenwood’s Youth Council, said hands-on experiences have helped him develop into the leader he is now.

“My first few years with KOCO,” he reflected, “the youth planned an annual back-to-school [event].”

This was my first year as a summer mentor. I didn’t like being called ‘Mr. Khalil’, cause I’m still young, [but] … I love working with kids.”

To learn more about Kenwood’s numerous ventures, click here.