ROCKVILLE – A grassroots social movement group sponsored by the school system said they want to knock down barriers that prevent men of color from becoming educators in Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS).

The grassroots movement is called the Building Our Network of Diversity Project (BOND), which hosted its third annual meeting on Nov. 14, focusing on the impact of male teachers of color on the school system.

MCPS faculty and staff, including the director of Human Resources and Development of MCPS Lancellotti “Lance” Dempsey as well as parents, community members and some county high school students, attended the panel discussion at Westlake Elementary School. Much of the meeting followed a panel discussion structure. 

BOND member Rodney Harrison, a counselor at Julius West Middle School,‏ asked the panelists questions. He asked some members of the panel to describe the impact of a male teacher of color on their education and development.

Colby Sisco, a student at Quince Orchard High School, was one of the panelists. 

“It gives a student, especially students of color, a way to relate to their teachers (… ), know they went through the same experiences you went through as a child,” Sisco said. 

Sisco said one of his classes, digital electronics, was taught by a Hispanic teacher who helped him in multiple ways, including deciding on a college major.  He recalled another situation in which he felt supported by that teacher after another faculty member said something inappropriate around the students. 

According to Sisco, the staff member “said something very ignorant toward us,” but “Mr. Castillo understood and immediately shut down the conversation.” The unnamed teacher later apologized to Sisco. 

It was “an empowering moment, to have another teacher of color empower me in the classroom,” the Quince Orchard student said. 

According to MCPS statistics, many of the teachers across the country are white, and the majority are women. The student population of MCPS is 32.3 percent Hispanic or Latino; 28.3 percent of students are white; 21.4 percent are Black or African American and 14.4 percent are Asian, according to the MCPS 2017-2018 Annual Report.

Another question touched on barriers to minority men entering the teacher workforce. One panelist mentioned a standardized test called the Praxis, which many teachers in MCPS have had to pass to be certified to teach. Robinson said he knew someone who passed the bar exam but failed the Praxis, and so the issue mattered to him. 

Panelist Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, an MCPS parent and co-founder of a local branch of Racial Justice NOW, agreed that the test was a barrier. 

“We have to pull back from being in shame for not being able to pass this test because it’s clearly been set up that way,” said Sankara-Jabar. “I know people who are highly educated, like Ph.D., who can’t pass the Praxis.”

Following those comments from the panelists, an MCPS representative from the office of human resources and development said the state of Maryland recently started accepting other requirements in place the Praxis Core test as of September, as long as the person has a grade point average (GPA) of 3.0.

Daryl C. Howard, an instructional specialist in the MCPS Equity Initiatives Unit, closed the discussion by directing the audience’s attention to the back of the room to the group of about eight high school students wearing black t-shirts emblazoned with the word BOND and thanked them for their involvement in the project. 

The meeting attracted an audience that stretched slightly beyond county limits. Bassell Franks, who works in the administration of a local community college in Maryland outside of the county, attended the meeting and was pleased with what he learned.  

“I felt it was great because I was able to get a lot of information that I can kind of base research off of so I can kind of start some initiatives at a local community college,” Franks said. 

Franks said one part that struck him was the discussion on Praxis tests.  

“What they were talking about with test scores, Praxis tests, that type of stuff was really eye-opening for me because I can go back and research some of those things and how they affect my population,” Franks said. 

Franks said he first learned about BOND when he attended a recent summit at Montgomery College, which covered similar issues to the BOND meeting. 

Students involved in the BOND project said having teachers who “look like me” had positive impacts on their lives. Having male educators or school staff who are persons of color is a positive experience because they believed that they each had somebody they could talk to, comfortably.

Liam Olagbaju, 17 and a senior at Montgomery Blair High School, said he said he feels comfortable approaching any teacher in his school who is in the BOND project or is a person of color if he wants to talk with someone.

“It gives you just a boost of confidence,” Olagbaju, a BOND member, said. “It’s kind of like a security blanket because school’s stressful.” 

Olagbaju said that a male teacher of color who is a member of the project allowed him to promote his branch of National Society for Black Engineers (NSBE) during a meeting for the Minority Scholars Program. The program works to encourage students in minority groups being able to succeed academically. He was having trouble getting the word out about the society, and he was grateful for the teacher’s support. 

Olagbaju said that when a person of color is talking to a non-minority, he or she feels pressured to choose their words carefully, a practice which he said is called code-switching. However, he does not feel the need to use guarded speech when he talks with teachers involved in the BOND project, who are all persons of color. 

Franks said he had to use code-switching in school “all the time.” He did have a teacher who was a minority, which he felt comfortable with, however, who motivated him and his other male classmates to push themselves in school. Franks said benefitted from having that teacher, who showed that he cared about the students’ success.  

Calloway Majette, a senior at Blair, also said that having minority teachers is helpful, especially during stressful times in school. He finds mentors in those teachers. He compared them to have a “cool uncle” as opposed to a father figure because he feels more open to what the teachers have to say compared to a parent or guardian.

“(Your father) might preach to you, like lecture you too much, but, coming from a secondary source, it’s like a breath of fresh air – and they are sending similar information, it’s just like a different vantage point,” Majette said. “And so, those experiences alone help shape me in my academic endeavors. It’s helped me grow as a person, like in the classroom as well as out of the classroom.”

Both Majettee and Olagbaju said it was helpful to talk to someone in their school with a similar racial or ethnic background because they likely had a similar upbringing. Then they understand some of the challenges that the teenager is experiencing.

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