Ron Walker’s journey to becoming the founder and director of the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color (COSEBOC) is the product of his life’s journey and professional experiences in education.
The virtue of education was instilled in Walker by his parents, who grew up in the south during the Jim Crow era and did not have the opportunity for a quality, formal education. Walker remembers watching his father, a construction worker who couldn’t read or write, memorize, in just one day, the names of all the laborers he had hired. Walker helped his father by writing the laborers’ names and detailed job information in a record book as his father recited it all from memory.
When in high school, Walker’s mother won a scholarship to attend college, but she was denied the opportunity by her father, who said it was not right to send one of his children to college if they all could not go.
However, these experiences confirmed for Walker that although his father did not read or write and his mother had not attended college, they were both intelligent people. And their intelligence was a fact, with or without a quality education. Walker’s parents made it clear that they wanted more for their children, and the seed was planted at an early age that their children would have opportunities that their parents did not.
The oldest of three, Walker was the first member of his family and the only one of his siblings to attend college. He went to Lincoln University, a historically Black college in Pennsylvania. After graduating, Walker became a teacher in Philadelphia at the same middle school he had attended as a young boy. He gives credit to two of his students--Wendell and Kevin--for triggering his interest in educational leadership and advocacy.
Walker recalls the day Wendell came up to him and said, “Mr. Walker, my family is moving to another part of Philly, and I will be attending a different school.” Walker knew that Wendell was headed to a neighborhood notorious for gang activity. Before walking away, Wendell confidently said, “Mr. Walker, I am going to be president of the United States one day.” “Wendell,” Walker responded, “you can and will be anything you want to be.” Two weeks later, Wendell was killed in a gang fight. This would be the first (but not the last) student’s funeral Walker would attend, and it weighed heavily on him.
Years later, Kevin contacted Walker, who had moved from Philadelphia to be a principal in Cambridge, Massachusetts. While in Cambridge, Walker received an envelope listing a penitentiary as the return address. He opened it to find a letter from Kevin, a student he had taught in the ninth grade. Twenty-three years old at the time, Kevin explained that he was incarcerated for life for murder and drug charges. Kevin wrote of Walker’s impact on developing his intrinsic value of education, and he included with the letter his report cards filled with straight A’s from the classes at the penitentiary. Walker and Kevin exchanged letters for 30 years, until in 2006, the principal of the penitentiary school called Walker to say that Kevin had requested him to be the keynote speaker of the penitentiary’s GED graduation ceremony. Walker had not seen Kevin since the ninth grade, and now Kevin, on the brink of turning 50, was the class valedictorian. In his speech, Kevin said, “Although I am incarcerated, I am now free because I am educated.” This experience moved Walker so profoundly that at the end of that month, he started COSEBOC and soon after dedicated himself to the organization full-time.
Now celebrating its 10th year, COSEBOC (Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color) seeks to transform the narrative of boys of color--that they are capable, talented, and filled with genius. Central to COSEBOC’s values is the fundamental belief that boys of color deserve equitable access to educational opportunity and that educators and school leaders who are with them daily can make an immense difference in their lives.
Walker has learned that even within the larger system, one person can make a difference. He recommends that educators view their boys of color as “natural resources waiting to be polished, acres of diamonds waiting to be shined.” He believes that boys of color bring genius into the classroom and the discerning educator will be able to see potential in all students. More than ever before, he believes that educators can set students free, particularly those with special needs. He urges, “Don’t be a jailor, be a liberator!” He asks educators to remember that every year is a new start. If what happened the previous year was not positive, it does not have to happen again. Educators can make a difference.
COSEBOC is a vibrant national and regional convener, bringing educators together to discuss, learn, and develop solutions to critical challenges impacting boys of color.
These challenges include lower high school graduation rates for Black male students (59%) and Latino male students (65%) compared to White male students (80%). Black students also have higher suspension rates (6% above White peers) and lower achievement scores than their White peers.
COSEBOC provides high-quality professional development for educators, principals, and teachers to address the low academic achievement and high suspension rates. The organization is also concerned with underrepresentation in gifted and talented programs and overrepresentation in special education, as noted by the Office of Civil Rights:
- Black boys comprise 8.1% of the student population but 12.8% of the students referred for special education services.
- Latino boys comprise 12.1% of the total school enrollment but 14.2% of the students referred for special education services.
COSEBOC has focused much of its professional development work on leaders, particularly school principals. As Walker describes, “[P]rincipals are the second most important person in the school after the teacher . . . Anybody can go to a school and be a principal, but that does not mean they are a leader.” He also believes that being a principal takes “courage, collaboration, conviction, resourcefulness, and equity-mindedness. They know their role grants them the opportunity and responsibility to open the doors that may be blocked by outdated and archaic policies.”
Walker believes that for those working in special education, expertise, sensitivity, focus, and compassion will provide the strength and leadership necessary to bring out the best in students of color. He recommends the use of COSEBOC’s Standards and Promising Practices for Schools Educating Boys of Color as a template or frame of reference to guide leaders through their work. The COSEBOC standards define core components necessary for effective schools, and they were developed to provide exemplars for existing schools. The standards, supported by extensive research, cover the following topics:
- Parent/family/community partnership
- Curriculum and instruction
- School environment and culture
- School leadership
- School counseling
- School organization
COSEBOC members are typically districts, and sometimes individual schools, across the country that request services and technical assistance while working on various projects related to Restorative Justice, Rites of Passage (an approach to young men of color understanding their identity), leadership training on the COSEBOC standards, and creating collaboration in large gatherings. And COSEBOC has seen results. For example, the Rites of Passage” programs for Black and Latino male high school students have yielded higher high school completion and attendance rates and lower suspension rates.
Collaboration is one of COSEBOC’s central tenets. Walker believes that collaboration is a key to transformation and impact, and he collaborates with like-minded organizations working toward equitable outcomes for students of color.
COSEBOC and the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative have begun a conversation about common interests and values, and they are now sharing ideas and resources that address critical challenges in education, such as disproportionality in special education. This collaboration presents a unique opportunity to make a powerful impact in urban districts. Walker describes the relationship as “two kindred spirits coming together.
When asked about his hopes for the future, Walker didn’t hesitate with his response.
In closing, Ron Walker reflected on what COSEBOC’s work has meant to him personally:
Upcoming COSEBOC Events
December 9, 2016 - Trauma in the Village, Boston, Massachusetts
This regional gathering will focus on fostering a safe space for members to strategize solutions for trauma and social-emotional education while aiding in the healing process.
April 26-28, 2017 - 11th Annual Gathering of Leaders, Austin, Texas
This gathering will be the first of its kind in the Austin region and will be focused in an area with a predominantly Latino population.
Visit the COSEBOC website for more details on both events.