Calling All Potential MinistersBy Robin V. SmilesJust a few decades ago, being a teacher was the career of choice for many first- and second-generation African American college graduates. It was a step up from previous generations’ industrial and domestic laboring. It ensured a stable, middle-class income and way of life. And, just as importantly, it provided an opportunity to directly influence the next generation of potential college graduates.
Today, however, teaching is increasingly becoming more the exception than the norm for African American college grads. Just last month, a report released by the American Council on Education showed that African Americans experienced a 2.5 percent decline in 2000 in those earning bachelor’s degrees in education. With opportunities increasing and doors opening for African Americans in other fields, teaching has emerged as just one of many options available for young Black college graduates, prompting many to view teaching as more or less the profession of their parents.
The waning interest in teaching, however, is by no means unique to an African American community. Albeit for other reasons, others are choosing to bypass the chance to become teachers, a job that in recent years has been characterized as home to the overworked, undervalued and, most significantly, the underpaid. As a result, the teacher shortage has become national news with many states lamenting the crisis as they face a retiring cohort of elementary and secondary educators and no one to fill their ranks. The issue has prompted education advocates to go beyond traditional recruiting and retention methods, to think outside the box and to create new approaches to drawing students to the field.
South Carolina’s Call Me Mister program is one of those “outside the box” strategies. A collaboration between four South Carolina colleges — one large public institution and three small private colleges — the program seeks to increase the number of Black male teachers in the state’s public school system, where less than 1 percent of the teachers are Black males. Its official mission: “To recruit, train, certify and secure employment for 200 Black males as elementary teachers in South Carolina’s public schools.” Clemson University is the base for the program, providing the special strengths and resources of a large, public research institution. Claflin University, Benedict College and Morris College, all historically Black institutions, provide the specialized teacher education instructional programs and the students, or the “Misters.”
The program offers the Misters tuition assistance — an average of $4,000 to $5,000 per student, per year — an academic support system, as well as social and cultural support systems to facilitate their success. In turn, the Misters are expected to return the favor in the classroom by becoming elementary schoolteachers as well as role models for kids throughout the state.
Call Me Mister was launched in 1999 with the help of funding from a number of private foundations, and the first class of Misters enrolled in the fall of 2000. The program received national attention the next year when some of the Misters and Jeff Davis, the program’s field director, appeared on the “Oprah Winfrey Show.” Davis, a Clemson graduate and former NFL player, received Oprah’s Angel Network’s “Use Your Life” award, which included a $100,000 gift.
With the first group of Misters just entering their junior year, the program has yet to be tested, that is in regard to its official mission. Its success there will not be measurable until the students fulfill their obligations by graduating and actually joining the staff at public schools in the state. Still, according to Dr. Tom Parks, director of the Call Me Mister program and professor and coordinator of off-campus programs at Clemson, both the program and the Misters are “right on track.”
“The first two years were the developmental phase,” Parks says. “We are now mostly concerned with replication and dissemination of what we have learned.”
Much of what Parks and other Call Me Mister officials have learned has been encouraging. According to a recent executive summary of outcomes for the program, the overall retention rate for students in the Call Me Mister program is approximately 71 percent, exceeding the rate for other students at the three HBCUs. As well, the average grade-point average for students in the spring 2002 semester was 2.9, which also exceeds the average GPA of other students on the campus.
The summary of outcomes also paints a picture of Misters who are pleased with the program. Close to 90 percent of the participants believe that they are being prepared to become professionally equipped for their roles as elementary teachers. And when asked if the program gave them a sense of purpose in their lives, 81.6 percent of the participants responded very favorably that it did.
Yet, halfway through the program’s original five-year plan, Call Me Mister officials have also become aware that more emphasis is needed in some areas.
“We learned that the Misters need more help in passing the Praxis I exam,” Parks says. The three-part exam is usually taken in the junior year and required by South Carolina to become certified. The Praxis passage rate for students in the Call Me Mister program — the rate of those who passed all three sections in practice tests — is just 40 percent.
“The results were not a surprise,” Parks says. “But they let us know what we need to do.” As a result, what was initially planned as a three-hour workshop on test-taking skills has been expanded to a 15-hour session with a specific focus on basic skills and the Praxis I exam.
Claflin junior and Call Me Mister scholar Hayward R. Jean doesn’t see the exam as a unique challenge. “We know that is what we need to do. We are not looking for any handouts or special recognition. We have to become certified by the state. We know that, but our main goal is going back into the classroom to touch and save lives,” Jean says.
The executive summary also underscored the importance of increasing the program’s financial resources. More than 90 percent of the Misters expressed that financial assistance is necessary to continue their enrollment.
According to Parks, the level of interest in funding has continued since the program’s inception. This past spring, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, which originally gave the program $600,000, added $150,000 to their grant. The program also received a $35,000 grant from DuPont for internships in math and science. Other agencies have expressed interest in supporting the program, including NASA, which wants to help increase the number of those teaching math and science, according to Parks.
Things have been a bit more challenging in seeking state and federal support. The program received $517,000 from the state the first year. But, like in most states, the financial picture turned bleak last year in South Carolina, with severe cuts in higher education. Still, Parks remains insistent on the need for state support.
“In South Carolina, it costs $16,000 to house one prisoner, we are asking for $4,000 to create a future leader. … We are hoping they will see this as a bargain,” he says.
The program also received $500,000 from the federal government and Call Me Mister officials were encouraged by a recent visit from U.S. Education Secretary Roderick Paige. While program officials worry about funding and test scores, the Misters also have their own concerns, ranging from maintaining a sense of unity among all of those involved, to being taken more seriously. “This program is so vital and so important and nothing to be played around with,” Jean says. “A lot of people don’t think that we really want to be teachers, but our main goal is not just to become teachers, but to become successful teachers.”
The Misters have a lot riding on the program. Claflin freshman Tremelle Brown, one of the newest Misters, says he has “big expectations for where the program is going to take me.” After years of working with young kids at his church, Brown was recruited to the program by his older twin cousins Hayward and Howard Jean. He thinks it will give him a good opportunity to get a job. “But not just for my benefit,” he says. “But for the benefit of the kids as well.”
But Brown is not the only one with big expectations for where the program is going to take them. According to Parks, 66 colleges have expressed an interest in duplicating the program on their campuses. Officials plan to use some of the new funding from the Mott Foundation to target those schools and host a conference in the spring, inviting the interested schools to come down and see the South Carolina model first hand. For more information, visit www.callmemister.clemson.edu.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com