Inspirational Conversations: Changing Minnesota’s Education System by Leading Black Boys to Literacy
Keenan Jones, 38, is on a mission to transform Minnesota’s education system and advance black success. A 2001 graduate from Osseo High School, Jones is passionate about bridging the educational gap between students of color and their white peers. As an elementary teacher in the Hopkins School District, Jones founded the nonprofit Literacy for Freedom to help black boys achieve proficient levels of literacy, mentoring and learning. more on black history. Jones also sits on the Minnesota Children’s Cabinet, headed by Governor Tim Walz, and is an advocate for teacher diversity. He reflects on his job, what motivates him, and what solutions he believes will give black boys their best chance for success.
Q: Tell me about Freedom Literacy and how you got interested in helping black boys improve their reading and writing skills.
A: I have been in education for 13 years and have always been curious if black boys are into reading. In 2018, I decided to get my master’s degree in literacy from Hamline University. I graduated in the spring of 2019. My research focused on the literacy gap of black men, the success of black men, and the identity of black men in public education. During my studies I discovered many flaws in our public education system, the journey from school to prison, poor reading fluency for black boys, and how to support black boys in their academic career. One quote that stuck with me during my studies is that of the great Frederick Douglass: “Once you learn to read, you will be free forever.” I was teaching junior high English in fall 2019 and introduced this idea to a group of 15 black boys to form a student group for them focusing on identity, literacy and what it means to be a black man in America. They loved it and Literacy for Freedom was born.
Q: How has the reach of Literacy for Freedom changed after the murder of George Floyd?
A: After his assassination, I knew that the young men I supervised would need a space to let off steam. Many of our group sessions focused on police brutality, prejudice and systemic racism. Seeing these smart, dynamic young men looking defeated and confused by the murder, I knew it was time for me to do more. My thoughts were, “If the black men in this community feel this, how many black men in the Twin Cities feel this?” “
Q: How did you make your vision come true?
A: I pulled out my notebook and spent the summer of 2020 doing more research, talked to black academics, and sought input from local communities. Literacy for Freedom is now a 501 (c) (3) registered organization whose mission is to inspire, empower and motivate black boys to achieve greatness. It will take a village of people comprising schools, community members, politicians and families to change this narrative that exists for black men. Black men have been leaders in our country for over a century and we will never cease to be leaders.
Q: You started as a teacher at Hopkins and have since developed into innovation, design and learning. Can you tell me a bit about this transition?
A: I applied for a District Manager position a few years ago and didn’t get it, but this time I just felt like I was ready, so I applied again and I got the job. This transition has been an eye-opening experience because now I see education from a different perspective. I’m responsible for helping lead the district’s vision, which is centered on closing the achievement gap, increasing teacher diversity, and transforming education to meet the needs of the 21st century. It’s a lot of work, a ton of research, but the most important thing is that I’m running the district.
Q: What are the risks for black students if they do not have sufficient literacy skills?
A: There is a growing disparity between black boys and literacy skills compared to white and Asian boys nationally. Early literacy scores have become an essential indicator of their future. If black boys are not proficient in reading, they are four times more likely to drop out of school. If they’re not in school, they’re more likely to engage in negative behaviors that could potentially put them in the way of the school-to-prison pipeline. It is important, when we seek to advance the literacy outcomes of black boys, that we examine some of these important elements such as critical literacy strategies, early literacy, culturally relevant texts, and give educators the tools. to design literacy experiences that encourage critical examination and promote personal learning. Connections. There is so much we can do to strengthen the literacy skills of our black boys because they are more than capable.
Q: Is there a school-to-prison pipeline in Minnesota?
A: Yes, and unfortunately it starts when these young men start in pre-K. There is also a lack of opportunity for black men in our state. I have personal connections with black men I’ve taught or known who struggled academically in school, dropped out of school, and spent time in Midwestern prisons.
Q: But I’m sure you have some success stories too.
A: I also have many success stories of black men that I have mentored who have found success, whether in college or in other career fields. These young men are now contributing to their communities and raising families. It’s going to take a “village” of supportive schools, communities and families to keep our black boys in schools and out of these prisons. We can do it, but it has to be a collective effort.
Q: According to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, black students are eight times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students. How can our education system do better?
A: Our education system really needs to better understand the learning styles of black men so that we don’t continue to educate them with a deficit lens. Demonstration of healing is very important for black students and especially for black men, because in the grand scheme of things teaching is all about relationships. Regarding suspensions, I think we need to focus on the impact of school disciplinary policies regarding black students (boys), developing positive behavioral interventions in the early grades, monitoring the school climate using restorative justice practices and help school staff understand the relationships between specific racial and disciplinary patterns of black men. There must also be direct investments in the schools and communities where black men reside. Extracurricular activities can take them away from the streets and focus on preparing for their future. I currently know young black men who have incredible skills in the tech world, but minimum programs exist for them to hone their craft.
Q: What is your role with Black Men Teach?
A: I have been a strong advocate for diversity in teachers and [I’m] is currently working with a large organization called Black Men Teach, which aims to put black men in elementary grades. I also co-host the Hopkins Public Schools of Color Educator Mentorship Program, where the focus is on recruiting, retaining and building a community for our teachers of color to thrive. It’s a blessing to be involved in so much, but my mission is always to help young people be their best.