In Illinois, only 1 percent of public school teachers are black men. Here’s why that’s hurting students.
A growing body of research underscores the premise that having black male teachers can mean more success at school for students of color , particularly boys, lowering dropout rates and the achievement gap between black and white students .
The research also indicates that black students with black teachers are suspended less often than those with white or Hispanic teachers and that — test scores and other factors being equal — black students are three times more likely to be assigned to gifted programs when taught by a black teacher than a nonblack teacher.
In addition, one study found that having at least one black teacher in elementary school — female or male — reduces by 39 percent the probability that very low-income black boys will drop out.
“I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if … male black teachers are more effective to male black students,” said Nicholas Papageorge, an assistant professor of economics at Johns Hopkins University who researches and writes about teacher diversity. “The more similar a role model is, the more effective it could be.”
But recruiting young black men to become teachers — and retaining them — is an enormous challenge, he and other experts note. Many of the brightest, most promising black male college students are lured to higher-paying, more stable professions with better prospects for advancement, experts say.
And black teachers tend to burn out more frequently than their white counterparts.
“I don’t even know who he is, but I already admire him,” Papageorge said of White. “He’s going into the trenches. A lot of these kids need role models.” (Tribune graphics) Rules, Social Fridays and hygiene — all on Day 1
That morning after Labor Day in Room 203, White had arranged desks in five clusters and left the room’s fluorescent ceiling lights off, preferring natural light from a wall of windows and three table lamps. The aroma of essential oils wafted through the room. Two new, cushy chairs were set up in a reading nook.
He immediately introduced the classroom rules, which are posted on the wall and which he would repeatedly drill into his students: Listen when the teacher is talking; follow directions quickly; respect others, yourself and your class; raise your hand to speak or stand; be safe, honest and kind.
He had the students practice several times quietly pulling out their chairs and sitting. He ordered them to turn off their phones and later placed the devices in a locked cabinet next to his desk.
“When I say, ‘Class,’ ” he told the group, “You say, ‘Yes.’
“Class,” he called.
“Class, class,” White said.
“Yes, yes,” they said.
He explained that he only affirms positive behavior. “Thank you for using your intelligence,” he told them at one point. “Thank you for your patience,” he said another time.
He was very direct and probing in speaking with students, a trait that put off student Jah’Elle Smith.
“When I first met him,” she recalled later, “I did not like him. He gave me an attitude.”
Classmates Malik Newsom and Juliana Clay said he was strict, “but I think we need that for sixth grade,” Juliana added.
Jonathan White begins his first year as a teacher for sixth-grade students at A.N. Pritzker School in Wicker Park. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune)
White introduced Social Fridays, where students earn free time on the last day of the week by accruing good behavior points, but can also lose it through bad behavior.
He placed himself on the “hot seat,” allowing students to ask him anything about himself, before encouraging others to volunteer for the spot.
“When I was in middle school, I was a D student,” he said. “Why? Because I was bored. I was a daydreamer. I would look out the window and not do my work.”
Then he had them try to arrange their seating based on their birth months, but without speaking. This led to chaos. He told them that “making mistakes actually grows your brain. It’s science.”
And he broached a sensitive topic.
“I’m not trying to have a puberty conversation here,” he said, eliciting groans across the room. “Whatever your method is, you need to wash your body every day.”
While leading his students around the school’s halls, they passed a sixth-grade boy sobbing in the stairwell. During a break later, the boy walked into White’s empty classroom, sniffling. The teacher pulled up a chair.
“I know how you feel,” he told the boy. “You know what happened to me this year? My dad died. I still miss him. In fact, on my way here today, I cried. It’s good for you to cry. It’s healthy.”
He waited for the boy to say something.
“It’s going to be OK,” White finally said.
At the end of the day, he directed the class to stand in line quietly to wait for dismissal. Then he huddled with five African-American boys. In a low voice, he told them that there was only one alpha male in the classroom: him.
“It’s not our classroom yet,” he said to the students. “It’s mine for now.”
After everyone left, White wiped sweat from his head and face, saying they’re good kids. They just need some work. He was planning to call the parents of three or four students.
He said the longer he had the students, the tougher it was to keep their attention. He said he learned he has a lot to learn.
“I just gotta keep working on it,” he said. “There are a lot of gaps in my practice, and I need to take care of this.
“I pulled out all my tricks,” White added. “I am so tired. I am so tired, man.”
In the stairwell, another teacher approached him.
“One (day) down,” the colleague said, “179 to go.” Call me ‘Mister’
As White does his part to address the dearth of African-American male teachers at Pritzker School, the University of Illinois at Chicago is attempting to solve the problem in a broader, systematic way.
Last fall, the university launched its Call Me MISTER program, which recruits and trains male elementary education majors of color almost as the school recruits and trains athletes.
READ MORE: An effort at the University of Illinois at Chicago recruits men of color to be elementary school teachers the way some universities recruit athletes »
The acronym stands for Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models, and each of the young men involved — six Latino, one black — receives full tuition and room and board, academic and mentoring support and job placement assistance.
Alfred Tatum, dean of UIC’s College of Education, started the program, which is affiliated with the original, national MISTER initiative based at Clemson University.
Tatum called the inaugural group “soul models” who “come in your life and stay in your life. This is not just becoming a teacher,” he said, adding that the school is planning to invest about $1 million in the effort.
“This is becoming a leader.” A long road to teaching
White loves watches and hates to be interrupted. He carries a leather-bound journal with an owl on the cover. He is married to a kindergarten teacher, and they have a 5-year-old daughter.
His head is shaved. He wears glasses and sports a goatee. He is introspective, long-winded and confident, eloquent and candid. He plays bass guitar and is reading “The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap.” He writes notes in the margins of the pages.
Born in 1981 in Waukegan, White is the oldest of three brothers separated by less than three years. He took a circuitous and perilous route to teaching sixth grade.
His father was an ordained minister in the Church of God in Christ, a predominantly black Pentecostal denomination, and worked for Allstate, then for Montgomery Ward.
His mother, Regina, also heavily involved in the church, worked for the Lake County Circuit Court clerk.
The family’s life was woven deeply into their local church. But in 1988, they moved to Columbus, Ohio, to help a friend start a church.
The family ran out of money, and for about a month, they were homeless, White said. He recalled routinely stopping at a church that provided hotel vouchers and bags of food, and later subsisting on fast food.
“I will never eat a Whopper again in my life,” White said. “We lived on those.”
His father found work on the third shift at a White Castle. His mother started nursing school.
“I remember that being a pretty stressful time for him, having to leave us” to go to work at night, White recalled of his father. “Some hotels were pretty shady. We were babies … 7, 6, 5 years old.”
They found subsidized housing in an apartment, White recalled, with “a crack house above us … a crack house next door to us,” where children were living in squalor. Despite their own hardships, he recalled, his mother and father bathed and fed neighbors’ children and got them ready for school each day.
“So even in those experiences,” White said, “my curriculum around serving people was formed by watching my parents do that.”
In first grade, his teacher recommended special education for him. His parents fought and prevailed.
By the time he was in third grade, his family’s life had stabilized some. They’d moved to slightly better public housing and then to a rental house in a working-class, multiracial neighborhood. They got an orange and white cat they named Tiny. His mother started working at a clinic. His father became a school bus driver.
At the second school where he attended third grade, he was the only black male in his class. His teacher accused him of stealing a pencil — an infraction he said he didn’t commit — and decided to make an example of him.
“She did this by making all of the students line up along the perimeter of the room, and with me — only me — and her in the middle,” White recalled from his own classroom, nearly three decades later. She pushed over his desk, spilling all its contents on the floor, he said, his voice tightening.
“Oftentimes, when I think of instances that inspired me to be a teacher — that put me on this pathway — they’re instances where my own schooling was traumatic,” White said. “That’s not the kind of environment that any student should be experiencing.”
Despite the sometimes hardscrabble existence, White recalls a mostly rich childhood of neighborhood adventures with buddies of all races, of Saturdays spent at the library, of the old black-and-white films his father loved and discussions about history and politics his father led.
White’s family returned to Waukegan in 1995, where he attended the same middle school as his father had.
At Waukegan High School, he was a cut-up who competed in track and field and football. His 1.7 GPA knocked him off the sophomore football team until he raised his grades through 7 a.m. study sessions.
He focused, and by the time he graduated, had brought his GPA up to 3.3. But he scored a 17 out of 36 on his ACT, and the only college that would accept him was Chicago’s North Park University, White said.
He and his younger brother Tim — who was 10 months younger but in the same class as White — enrolled together. They were roommates all four years.
Near the end of his freshman year at the University of Illinois at Chicago , Ja’Waun Williams heard that a dean there had been a member of the fraternity Williams was pledging.
After bonding over their shared affection for Alpha Phi Alpha, Dean Alfred Tatum persuaded Williams to shift his academic…
He thrived at North Park and graduated in 2004. But he had trouble finding a job, settling for portrait photographer at Sears. Then he moved to a label and decal manufacturer as a production artist, then to a marketing coordinator at a Mount Prospect company in 2007.
About a year later, he was fired. “I made too many small mistakes,” he recalled, adding that he had difficulty navigating the corporate world. For months, White stood in unemployment lines in Waukegan, “eating humble pie” and “learning a little bit about life,” he said.
He obtained student loans and enrolled in Keller Graduate School of Management’s MBA program while he also did freelance graphic art and design work. He created his own business, White Flair Design.
At church he met a Chicago Public Schools teacher, Candice West. They married in 2011. Their daughter, Morgan, was born in 2013.
Candice encouraged him to try teaching. She said her husband had a natural capacity to help her solve classroom challenges. His father had also suggested it over the years.
But White resisted, in part because he wanted something perceived as more respectable and lucrative.
He drifted and bounced, at one point working in a stockroom at Bed Bath & Beyond. His business was stagnating and he was uninspired. He studied for and took the law school entrance exam, but scored lower than he wanted and felt he urgently needed to provide a better life for his family.
“I finally listened to my wife,” White said. He applied to be a Chicago Public Schools substitute.
“It was almost as if it accelerated me,” he said. “I was in touch with so many different people, and I loved the work. I was very fascinated with the craft of teaching.”
He became a teacher assistant at North Kenwood/Oakland, a University of Chicago charter school in his neighborhood, where he heard about the university’s Urban Teacher Education Program. He applied, was accepted, took on more student loan debt and embarked on two years of rigorous training.
In the spring of 2017, White’s father retired as a school bus driver and started working as a substitute teacher in the same Waukegan school district where he had been a student.
About 14 months later, his eldest son — the one who had been tracked for special education and had floundered with a 1.7 GPA — earned a master’s degree in education from the University of Chicago.
On a recent Sunday afternoon in a coffeehouse near the Kenwood church where he teaches Sunday school, White spoke of his father’s “ferocious” reading, often by flashlight late at night; his work ethic; his devotion to trying to help people in the roughest neighborhoods; how he established a Waukegan church.
“My dad was the friendliest person you’d ever meet,” White said. “He embodied hospitality. It was uncanny. He could overcome any obstacle and find a way to open people up. He found a way to connect.”
But over the decades, his father’s respiratory system deteriorated steadily — the result, White said, of lung damage from nearly drowning as a boy and pneumonia as an adult. About six months before White’s U. of C. graduation, Jonathan White Sr. went into respiratory arrest and died in the same hospital where he had been born. He was 58.
White still keeps a voicemail on his phone that his father left him in October 2017. He wanted to know what White, then in graduate school, was learning about how fifth-graders are taught these days. Being prepared, and being spontaneous
A.N. Pritzker School is named for the businessman, philanthropist and alum of what had been Wicker Park School. He also was the grandfather of Illinois’ incoming governor, J.B. Pritzker.
In CPS vernacular, the building is “a neighborhood magnet cluster school and regional gifted center,” meaning it’s a hybrid of a selective enrollment and neighborhood school. Students come from around the corner and around the city. One of White’s students travels from Hyde Park.
The school, which includes prekindergarten to eighth grade, is known for its gifted program and for integrating the arts into its curriculum. Its student body is 34 percent Hispanic, 29 percent white and 27 percent black — mirroring Chicago as a whole. Forty-one percent of the school’s students come from low-income families.
It’s situated in gentrifying Wicker Park. Two Chicago Housing Authority towers for subsidized senior housing stand directly across the street. Across the alley is an elaborately restored Victorian mansion on the market for $6.5 million.
Shortly after he graduated from U. of C., White walked into Pritzker School and found Principal Joenile Albert-Reese in her office.
He had been a long-term substitute teacher there a few years earlier and was highly regarded. Albert-Reese made him an informal offer on the spot to take the full-time position of a teacher who was leaving, for a salary of about $57,000. He is contending with “a mountain” of student loan debt.
White started clearing, cleaning and organizing Room 203 in late August.
After the first week of class, he said he learned the importance of preparation but also of being spontaneous when something wasn’t working. He said his biggest challenge was getting his school email activated, coordinating payroll and benefits paperwork and discerning the different personalities in his room.
A few days in, administrators swapped several students from his room to that of his sixth-grade teaching partner, to more evenly distribute some of the rowdier kids.
“This group is a very talkative group,” White said. “They like to be social, and so I’m trying to find ways to provide them opportunities to be collaborative and at the same time remain focused on the task.”
His goal, he said, was to improve his management of the classroom, “giving them a space to move through a process of learning.”
He was very tired. And he was getting pushback, particularly from some of the 11 black male students in his class, he said.
“That’s natural for this age,” White said. “They’re testing their boundaries.” Some also may be expressing resentment for absent fathers, he said, although he believes that black males are stigmatized unfairly with that perception.
“But there is a degree of trauma there, and I will sometimes experience that head-on,” White said. “It depends on the student I’m getting.”
By the time he distributed report cards in October, the class was entering the room and working with remarkable calm and quiet. One day the students wrote about what’s most important in being a good friend. Later, they wrote about what it means to be strong. Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune
Notes from one of teacher Jonathan White’s classroom assignments asking his sixth-grade students what it means to be strong on Dec. 12, 2018.
Notes from one of teacher Jonathan White’s classroom assignments asking his sixth-grade students what it means to be strong on Dec. 12, 2018. (Zbigniew Bzdak/Chicago Tribune)
The FDA is going after stem cell clinics that peddle unproven treatments
Dr. Mark Berman injects a syringe of cells used for stem cell therapies into the shoulder of patient Anthony Lekkos in his office in Beverly Hills, California, in 2016. Patrick T. Fallon for The Washington Post/Getty Images Inside Mark Berman’s clinic in Rancho Mirage, California, is a sign he’s obliged by law to post. It reads “Not FDA Approved.” Patients who come here to the California Stem Cell Treatment Center can get treatments for ailments ranging from sports injuries to muscular dystrophy. For upward of $5,000, Berman, a plastic surgeon by training, will remove a small portion of their fat, process it, and inject it back into them. This is called “fat-derived stem cell therapy”; the premise is that the stem cells in your fat can jump-start the healing process. “The stem cells could be good for repairing everything from Alzheimer’s to paralysis to neurodegenerative conditions,” says Berman. “These cells are miraculous for helping heal. We don’t have a choice. We have to use them.” The problem is there’s not much evidence to back up the claims Berman is making. And it’s not just him — there are more than 100 clinicians in the Cell Surgical Network , a group he co-founded in 2010 to promote the same kind of adult stem cell regenerative medicine he practices. According to a 2017 report by three Food and Drug Administration scientists in the New England Journal of Medicine looking at the benefits and risks of this kind of stem cell therapy, “This lack of evidence is worrisome.” Fat-derived stem cells “may have a positive effect,” says Brad Olwin, a professor of molecular cellular and developmental biology at the University of Colorado Boulder with more than 30 years of experience working with stem cells. “They may be beneficial; it’s clearly a possibility. The problem is the research hasn’t been done.” So little evidence exists, in fact, that the Department of Justice, on behalf of the FDA, is suing Berman’s clinic as well as a clinic in Florida for experimenting on patients with misleading products. The complaint was filed in May 2018 and the investigation is ongoing, according to the DOJ. Given the popularity and abundance of these clinics nationwide, the FDA is also taking steps to modernize regulation in the field. But despite these efforts to streamline a path to legitimacy for stem cell clinics, unregulated medical procedures persist, at times leading to patient harm. One of Berman’s assistants transfers stem cells extracted via liposuction of fat cells. Berman uses them not only for cosmetic procedures but also for orthopedic injuries, ALS, MS, and Parkinson’s, with a network of clinics around the US. Patrick T. Fallon for The Washington Post/Getty Images Clinics recruit and treat patients despite warnings from the FDA and bioethicists Currently, the only stem cell therapies approved by the FDA use cells from bone marrow or cord blood to treat cancers of the blood and bone marrow. But doctors in the Cell Surgical Network have moved ahead with using cells for autoimmune, neurologic, and other serious conditions. And there is a growing number of cases of adverse effects. In 2016, an elderly woman went blind after receiving an injection of stem cells to treat her macular degeneration. She received the treatment at the Stem Cell Center of Georgia — an affiliate of Berman’s Cell Surgical Network. More reports of ill-fated procedures have since surfaced across the country, the worst resulting in kidney failure and paraplegia . In December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 12 cases of people who suffered bacterial infections from contaminated stem cell treatments. An investigation traced the infections back to a single provider, Genetech, prompting the FDA to issue a warning letter to the company. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb then issued a public statement reaffirming the agency’s intent to regulate unapproved treatments. Bioethicists are sounding the alarm too. In a recent paper in the journal Perspectives in Biology and Medicine , the University of Minnesota’s Leigh Turner examined the marketing claims of 716 stem cell clinics in the United States. Often, he found, they were misleading. “What at first glance might appear to be credible and compliant clinical research often is highly problematic,” he wrote, adding that the individuals most affected are those “who often are already dealing with serious health problems and other challenges.” Despite two years of increased scrutiny from the FDA, clinics continue to recruit new patients. Berman insists that repurposed fat-derived stem cells should not be subject to the same regulations as other treatments, and that FDA guidelines are arbitrary and nonscientific. “They are a violation of constitutional rights to your own property.” He noted that after the case of the woman with macular degeneration going blind, his network’s clinicians no longer inject fat-derived stem cells into patients’ eyes. But they continue to offer intravenous (bloodstream) injections. “We have virtually three or four adverse events, of very little significance or consequence,” says Berman, referring to the patients in his network. But according to the FDA, intravenous injections are “associated with higher risk.” Other scientists I spoke with say they’re also worried that intravenous treatments may harm patients. “You’re taking cells out of one part of your body, and putting them into another. You have absolutely no control after that,” says Olwin. He acknowledges the FDA’s efforts to crack down on clinics but suggests that much more can be done. “They have limited resources to go after people. But I think it’s irresponsible for doctors and these clinics to be promoting these things.” The disease-treating value of fat-derived stem cells lacks evidence Some types of stem cells can indeed give rise to virtually any cell in the body — providing a platform for regenerating muscle or even rebuilding organs. Stem cells derived from embryos have this power, called pluripotency, but those obtained from adults do not. In order to acquire pluripotency, adult stem cells must be biologically reprogrammed — a feat that, when invented, led to a Nobel Prize . These induced pluripotent stem cells allow doctors to treat challenging illnesses such as leukemia. Related This isn’t hype: Canadian doctors just reversed severe MS using stem cells But clinics like Berman’s are not using pluripotent stem cells — they are using the mesenchymalstem cells found in fat, which are much more limited in function. Arnold Caplan, the field’s pioneer who first gave them the “stem cell” label, recently advocated for renaming them to prevent doctors from claiming that they “can cure the blind, make the lame walk, and make old tissue young again.” BrainStorm, a biotechnology company working with mesenchymal cells, recently gained FDA approval to begin clinical trials to treat patients suffering from multiple sclerosis. But to treat the neurological condition, BrainStorm researchers have developed a method to convert the mesenchymal cells into “biological factories” that release disease-treating proteins. In other words, BrainStorm’s therapy doesn’t involve mesenchymal cells doing the work on their own — what some clinics in the Cell Surgical Network claim mesenchymal cells can do. Outside of the Cell Surgical Network, other clinics are using patients’ fat-derived cells but making different claims about the treatment. “I don’t say I’m doing stem cell therapy,” says Dr. Joanne Halbrecht, an orthopedic surgeon and founder of Boulder Regenerative Medicine. Her clinic uses patients’ fat-derived cells to treat orthopedic conditions, injecting them into joints. Halbrecht avoids the “stem cell” label because current research does not support claims that these fat-derived cells can turn into cartilage. Instead, she uses patients’ fat to cushion their joints. According to Olwin and the FDA, such joint injections are significantly lower-risk than intravenous injections. Berman also administers direct joint injections. But afterward, he tells me, his clinicians also inject the leftover cells into the patient’s bloodstream. Halbrecht is adamant that this kind of procedure is unproven and unsafe. “That’s definitive. It’s not a question,” she says. “They are completely wrong because there is zero science behind that.” The FDA is offering doctors a new path to testing stem cell therapies For clinics to prove the safety and efficacy of their fat-derived stem cell treatments to the FDA, they must run rigorous clinical trials. But some clinicians argue that even if they were interested in clinical trials, getting the FDA’s blessing is too daunting. Clinical trials span years and cost millions of dollars. For small, privately owned clinics, this process is unaffordable. In response, the FDA unveiled a more feasible clinical trial process , better suited to small businesses. Clinics that want to test a specific treatment can now team up on clinical trials and pool their patients, which can save them time and money. Still, the FDA is offering a grace period of up to 36 months for clinics to comply with its guidelines, allowing many to continue operating on patients without doing clinical trials. In the meantime, the FDA is urging patients to “do [their] part to stay safe,” according to a consumer warning issued in May. Unfortunately, that’s not so easy. Whether or not a clinic is offering an FDA-compliant treatment can be unclear. Some doctors advertise compliance because the device they use to remove and process a patient’s fat is technically FDA-approved. But if they then advertise their treatment as an “FDA-approved” stem cell therapy, they risk misleading patients. Berman has no plans to pursue clinical trials, even with the new streamlined process. He believes his current model of clinical experimentation is adequate. In the so-called “safety studies,” he treats paying patients with a wide variety of diseases. But according to the recent bioethics report, Turner found that these pay-to-participate studies are poorly designed and unscientific. In Berman’s view, more patients benefit by obtaining cutting-edge treatments faster. But for every revolutionary treatment developed in a lab, there are nine duds and many unpredictable dangers. And unsanctioned clinics cost patients thousands of dollars and are not covered by insurance. Critics argue that it is unethical to charge patients for experimental procedures, as sanctioned clinical trials rarely cost patients anything. The economic incentives for unsanctioned stem cell clinics are clear. Starting clinical trials would not only reduce patient revenue but also commit clinics to a costly process known to last for years. Shifting blame to the government and research community, Berman assures me that he and his colleagues are not motivated by self-interest. “We’re the good guys,” he says. In March, the woman blinded by an unsanctioned stem cell treatment filed a lawsuit against Berman’s Cell Surgical Network. Berman’s site still advertises treatment for macular degeneration with a link to an application. But tucked away on Berman’s website sits a sort of confession that may surprise the many patients who hear him speak with unwavering assurance. The page reads, “We do not claim that these treatments work for any listed nor unlisted condition, intended or implied.” Max Levy is a PhD student in chemical and biological engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder and the senior editor of Science Buffs , a graduate student science blog. He writes about health, medicine, and the environment. Update, January 11: A reader pointed out that the FDA has also approved stem cell treatments from cord blood and so the post has been updated to reflect that. Next Up In Explainers