White House Director David Johns admittedly gets a little emotional when he talks about improving educational opportunities for black students he affectionally calls “babies” – a nod to his Twitter hashtag #TeachTheBabies.

“Excellence is absent when talking about black kids in education,” said Johns who leads the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans. The two-year-old initiative seeks to spark a conversation between school districts across the country on ways to educate low-income black students. “We live in a society where we believe black students aren’t smart. We hear that more black men are in prison than in college and that’s not true. We need to do a better job of policing what’s said about our babies.”

Johns was one of several guest speakers during the U.S. Department of Education’s “Partners in Progress” back-to-school bus tour who stopped in Memphis Monday.

The visit came shortly after Mayor A C Wharton announced plans to raise the quality of life and achievement for the city’s young African-American and Hispanic men through an initiative called “Inspiring Young Men of Color.” The program will bring together leaders from Memphis non-profits, businesses and schools to study the literacy, health and criminal justice barriers non-white students face.

Johns visited Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, Ford Road and Freedom Preparatory Academy and met with Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson II and Elliot Smalley, chief of staff for the state-run Achievement School District.

Johns participated in an “education rally” where he encouraged students to commit to earning a two- or four-year degree.

“You must pursue your purpose, and what God has for you…” he said.

Here are five takeaways from  Chalkbeat TN’s conversation with Johns.

🔗1.  Black parents must be meaningfully engaged in their child’s eduction.

“We don’t give the black family enough credit,” Johns said. “I have yet to meet a parent who didn’t want a better life for their child. Educators need to be a conduit for helping make the change. They need to distill complex education jargon and turn it into information parents can use. A student’s achievement level can be directly correlated to their parents’ income and level of education.”

🔗2. Throw away the argument that black students don’t test well.

“No Child Left Behind doesn’t mandate the kind of high-stakes teaching to the test that that no parent or educator wants to see our children endure,” Johns said.  “Assessment in its purest form is essential.  There are many ways it happens, from informal, formal and summative.  It’s important for educators to recognize the stereotype threat research in testing (black students).  The key is to not over-test or teach to the test.”

🔗3. Acknowledge that black teachers can have a positive impact on black students.

“I taught kindergarten in New York City,” he said. “I was the only black male classroom teacher. Diversity in the workplace has its benefits.  Research shows that having a black teacher gives affirmation for black students.”

🔗4.  Quality pre-kindergarten through higher learning opportunities is a necessity.

“More energy needs to be put in place to form collaboration between pre-K through 12th grade and higher education so that students are prepared to go to college,” Johns said. “I’ve seen in some cities where there’s a focus on pre-kindergarten, but the work is ensuring that investments are cradle-to-career.”

5. Pre-kindergarten factors into the development of a black student.

“We have to make sure early learners are in a high-quality program,” Johns said. “For example, Latino students are sometimes kept at home and are least likely to be enrolled in a program.  When they are enrolled, it is a quality program.  The work for the African American community is in improving program quality.  Black students may be enrolled in a program, but they are not always in a quality one.”

Read more about the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans here.

Contact Tajuana Cheshier at tcheshier@chalkbeat.org and (901) 730-4013.

Follow us on Twitter: @TajuanaCheshier@chalkbeattn.

Like us on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/chalkbeattn.

Sign up for our newsletter for regular updates on Tennessee education news: http://tn.chalkbeat.org/newsletter/