WASHINGTON — All through his years of schooling, David Johns was one of the few African-Americans in his classroom, from the high school in Los Angeles that was nearly an hourlong bus ride away – but that his mother insisted he attend – to Columbia University in New York.
Even when he taught elementary school in Manhattan, not a single black student sat behind one of the desks before him.
Now Johns sits behind a desk – at the U.S. Department of Education, no less – where it’s his job to lead a presidential effort to improve education for African-American students everywhere.
No small task, to be sure. The challenges are many, from a lack of high-quality programs to low test scores to the high dropout rate.
“Educational excellence is not often used in the same sentence when talking about African-American student achievement,” Johns said in an interview. “Traditionally, and in popular conversation, particularly in the media, whenever black kids are talked about with education, it’s negative. Or we will have infrequent moments where we will celebrate exceptions, but we sort of highlight them as exceptions.”
Education Secretary Arne Duncan appointed Johns to become the first executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans earlier this year. His mission, by an executive order of the president, is to “help ensure that African-Americans receive a complete and competitive education that prepares them for college, a satisfying career and productive citizenship.”
African-American students face an array of obstacles, the order says, among them an achievement gap in test scores, a “lack of access to highly effective teachers and principals, safe schools and challenging college-preparatory classes,” and disproportionate school discipline and referrals to special education classes.
But education data also show positive trends, Johns said. High school graduation and college enrollment of African-Americans are on the rise. In 2010, 38 percent of black 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college, compared with 30 percent a decade ago.
Johns said one of his goals in his new perch was to explode myths, highlight best practices and encourage community enthusiasm for accomplishment in learning, as much as it was celebrated in sports.
“We have an opportunity to change the way people think about and have conversations about supporting African-American students; boys in particular, who need the same type of care and attention and social and emotional support as their counterparts, race and gender notwithstanding,” he said.
A native of Inglewood, Calif., a Los Angeles County suburb, Johns graduated with honors from Columbia University in 2004 and then earned a master’s degree in sociology and education policy there while he taught kindergarten and third grade at a city public school. Before his new appointment, he worked as a senior policy adviser on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
“Anyone who knows me knows I’m passionate about education,” he said.
In an interview in his office and in several follow-up emails, Johns described his priorities:
Q: How did you get interested in education?
A: My mother was an education advocate before I knew the term. She’s someone who fundamentally understood the importance of education and stopped at nothing to make sure I had every opportunity afforded to my more affluent peers. So I’m the child who took a bus 45 minutes to an hour and a half each way to get to a school in a better part of town.
I was always one of very few if not the only African-American in a classroom. I always grappled with why that was the case. Public school graduates were a fairly small percentage of the student body at Columbia, and you layer that on top of African-American or minority public school graduates and it gets even smaller.
Q: One of your priorities is ensuring that all African-American children are enrolled in high-quality early learning programs. Why?
A: Roughly 80 percent of African-American children are likely to be in non-family-based programs, but many of them are not in a program that’s high quality (with) an adult who truly understands that the earliest years are opportunities to develop these foundational skills.
No matter what the challenge, no matter what the level – federal, state or local – early childhood education is a solution. So whether or not we’re discussing the dropout crisis or challenges with employing youth in sectors where there are vacancies, or reducing violence in communities . . . if we invest in the earliest years of a child’s life, those investments pay dividends for years to come, not only for that child and family, but for the cities and states they’re in.
Q: What are some of the other top challenges?
A: We need to make sure we are diversifying the teacher profession, not only with racially diverse classrooms, but also gender-diverse classrooms as well.
Fewer than 2 percent of the (teaching) work force looks like me. One thing I get most excited about is the work we’re doing recruiting and really trying to highlight opportunities for African-Americans in education. This is not something we tend to talk to our children and youth about when thinking about employment opportunities. I graduated from Columbia, and when I told my friends I was going to teach they looked at me like I was crazy. It’s just not something to be celebrated.
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