Before moving to Atlanta last year, Marcus Harden dreamed of opening a school in Seattle — a campus designed to enroll and support students who looked like himself.
Harden, a former administrator and student and family advocate with Seattle Public Schools, brainstormed the idea of an academy for young men of color several years ago with fellow South Seattle natives C.J. Dancer and Willie Seals. The trio imagined a school that would foster self-respect, critical thinking and cultural awareness in each student — exactly the type of education each man wish they had.
Harden has since exported that dream to Atlanta, where he expects to open an all-African American male-focused school in 2021. But he left the skeleton of his idea back in Seattle, as part of a summer program that just ended its third year at South Shore K-8 in Rainier Valley. There to breathe life into that skeleton is Jeremi Oliver, whose name you might recall from a recent Education Lab and Seattle Times story about paraeducators.
Aside from his role as a paraeducator — a job also known as classroom aide or instructional assistant — Oliver also teaches at the Academy for Creating Excellence (ACE), a four-week program that attempts to teach young men of color about toxic masculinity, how it came to be and ways to cope as the students prepare to enter their adolescence and the eighth grade. Harden returned to Seattle this summer to help with ACE but has informally mentored Oliver to take its reins.
“No matter if you go to Seattle Public Schools or Kent or Renton, you’re never gonna go to a school with all black male teachers,” Harden said. “If you know of one (school) like that, let me know and I’ll shut this down.”
Last month, Education Lab featured Oliver as an example of the existing pool of school workers that state officials hope will consider a career as a future teacher.
Paraeducators often perform the catchall jobs that keep schools running, such as detention duty or recess monitor. But increasingly, school districts have eyed these workers as a potential recruiting pool to diversify the teaching workforce and fill classroom vacancies in special education and bilingual programs.
Oliver recently joined about two dozen other paraeducators in Seattle who will take night and weekend classes to study for their teaching certification. ACE, meanwhile, offers him a chance to practice making his own dream a reality.
“Do we all make mistakes? Do we all want to live by last year’s mistakes?” Oliver asked six ACE students during a class on self-help and self-advocacy in school.
He prompted each to consider a time they felt disrespected by a teacher, and how their frustration made it harder to communicate and find a common solution.
“First, you get called out in front of everyone — that’s frustrating,” Oliver said. “Second, you lose any desire to talk this out. And third, there’s nothing investing you to actually do the (class) work now.”
Over the past four weeks, ACE’s about 20 students learned how to build and pilot drones. They explored their personal learning styles and how to apply that to their hardest subjects.
Seals, one of the ACE co-founders and a personal trainer, introduced the students to healthy diets and physical fitness — two measures that he said would prevent the cardiovascular diseases so common in their community.
The students also went on field trips — one to Amazon headquarters, another to spaceship company owned by Jeff Bezos called Blue Origin — where they met and talked to black engineers.
“What would it look like to put (science and math) to good use? Folks in my community don’t get to see that as an opportunity,” said Dancer, another co-founder who also works in the city’s education department.
Before he heads to Cleveland High School this fall, Jacob Mulugeta, 14, returned to South Shore for the summer program to mentor the soon-to-be eighth graders.
He credited ACE with renewing his interest in his academics, and now hopes to attend the University of Washington like his older sister.
“I used to trip in classes and wasn’t that great in school,” Jacob said. But then the ACE teachers “stopped treating me as a child. They held me to higher expectations, and that made me want to meet those expectations.”
On a recent Tuesday, Jacob joined the other young men for a relay on the school’s front lawn. As two teams devolved into an argument over the rules of the game, Jacob’s team quietly continued and eventually won the first round.
“It’s all about brotherhood,” Jacob said as the argument persisted. “We have to build that bond together.”