Minneapolis

New Afrocentric Minneapolis summer school program aims to help Black students

2021-08-03 12:38:43 –

Portraits of Black leaders line the summer school classroom on the third floor of Edison High School where Minneapolis students sit around a U-shaped table draped in brightly colored fabric.

On a recent morning, storyteller Vusumuzi Zulu stood at the center of the room and told an African folk tale that prompted a long conversation about the students’ own families.

“I know some people think, ‘There’s no way learning looks like sitting around in oral tradition and learning in community,’ ” said Nafeesah Muhammad. “But this is our English class.”

Muhammad is one of the founders of We Win When Black Students Graduate, a new summer school program for Black students in Minneapolis Public Schools. The program, offered in cooperation with the district’s Office of Black Student Achievement, includes an Afrocentric, project-based curriculum where students can, for example, learn math and physics concepts by making an African musical instrument. Zulu’s stories provide English lessons, an herbalist helps students learn about science, and a local rapper teaches students about hip-hop as a reflection of history and culture.

“They are getting all the credits and merits they’d get in a traditional summer school,” Muhammad said. “It’s just that this is often more relevant for them so they’re engaging.”

School districts across the state saw a surge in interest in summer school this year, in part because many students fell behind during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Minneapolis expanded its summer school options this year to help more students catch up. In May, about 24% of the district’s 2,731 seniors were not on track to graduate. As of last week, more than 200 Black students who completed their senior year in Minneapolis this spring lack the credits necessary to graduate, according to the district.

Muhammad came up with the idea as a way to help close the graduation gap for Black seniors.

She met with the Racial Justice Network, a grassroots activist group, and Titilayo Bediako, founder of the nonprofit We Win Institute. Together, they brainstormed the Afrocentric summer school program to help graduating seniors with credit recovery.

District leaders provided the space and resources to offer “We Win When Black Students Graduate” for the first time.

Since the four-week program began July 19, it’s grown beyond serving only seniors and has more than 20 students. Teenagers in lower grades have also been attending, as have students who have simply wandered in from other summer school classes because they were intrigued by the music and the laughter coming from the classroom with the open door.

Local activists, including Nekima Levy Armstrong and Leslie Redmond, connect students to community involvement opportunities and offer assistance with college and scholarship applications.

Muhammad knows that some may wonder why an Afrocentric program is necessary.

Her answer is simple: “Because white kids get their culture centered in their education for their whole lives,” she said. “Plus, we’ll never know if this works unless we try.”

Shamaria Jordan of the district’s Office of Black Student Achievement said the program is “very needed.” She’s already been fielding calls from parents in other districts asking if they can enroll their students.

“It’s beneficial for our young people to be in spaces where they can be their full selves and learn wholeheartedly,” she said.

Sanaa Wilder, a junior, said the classes have captured her attention in a new way. Wilder has ADHD and said the conversations have been so engaging, she hasn’t become distracted. Plus, she is allowed to leave her chair if she needs a break. As an aspiring rapper, she’s enjoying the hip-hop seminar.

She has also noticed her peers being more vulnerable in class, eager to share opinions and talk about their own experiences.

“We may never have thought about what it means to be Black and what we can do to learn about our culture,” she said, later adding, “We can really be ourselves.”

The program’s goal is to help the students catch up and close the graduation gap for Black students, Muhammad said, but it’s also about fostering a love of learning, culture and community.

“It’s about creating that spark for them, and who knows where that can lead?” she said. “Yes, this is academic, but it’s also about preparing them to be active community members with the tools for life.”

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440

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