By forging new black educators, Clemson education initiative way ahead of recent study

Researchers at the Institute of Labor Economics found that having a black teacher at the elementary level makes it more likely for a poor black student to pursue college. The problem is, South Carolina doesn’t have enough black teachers to go around. Enter Roy Jones and Clemson’s Call Me MISTER program.

By Mike Woodel
November 14, 2017

Thomas Turner didn’t always see a career in elementary education in his future. But along the way, teachers and coaches saw a spark in the young Turner.

“[They] truly inspired me to pursue a career in education and try to provide that same inspiration,” he said. Now the assistant principal at Sanders Middle School in Columbia, Turner originally attended West Virginia State on a football scholarship. After wishing to be closer to home, Turner transferred to Benedict College. It was there that he found the program that helped him reach where he is today.

On his second try, Turner was accepted into Call Me MISTER – Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role-models – a statewide initiative to diversify South Carolina’s pool of elementary school teachers.

Centered at Clemson University, the program has 21 participating colleges and universities around the state. According to recent research on the impact black educators have on low-income black students, its mission is more important than ever.

Roy Jones, a professor at Clemson’s College of Education, serves as Call Me MISTER’s executive director. Having eight years’ experience in teacher recruitment for the Charleston County School District and almost 40 in education overall, Jones understands the racial dynamics of public education.

“Eighteen years ago, the data told us that there were fewer than one percent of public school teachers teaching at the elementary level that were black males,” Jones said. “Clemson University felt that it needed to address that.”

Though Call Me MISTER has helped significantly in the eighteen years since, a recent study shows that its mission is still imperative.

A March study published by the Institute of Labor Economics found that young black males from a low-income background are 29 percent less likely to drop out of school if they had a black teacher between grades three and five. Having a black teacher during those years also makes them 18 percent more likely to be interested in attending college.

At the same time, South Carolina is experiencing a significant drought of teachers educated instate in addition to a steady stream of end-of-year departures. Only 25 percent of newly hired teachers in South Carolina completed their education within the state’s borders. Departures are on a steady increase, up 21 percent last year from 2015-16.  And in 2015-16, 28 percent of first-year teachers did not return to their position the following
academic year.

Melanie Barton, executive director of the state Education Oversight Committee, hopes the study makes waves throughout South Carolina’s education system. Currently, Barton says, only 15 percent of the state’s teachers are non-white.

“That teacher-role model effect has a tremendous impact on student achievement,” Barton said. “Students who don’t have those role models in their personal lives, when they see a teacher that looks like them and can relate culturally, it’s a huge incentive.”

Irmo Elementary employs one of the program’s more famous alums in assistant principal Mansa Joseph, a name familiar to Clemson football fans. Joseph played football at C.E. Murray High in Greeleyville before walking on to the Tigers in 2008. A special education major, he was the first Tiger football player to take part in Call Me

“They pushed me, and they challenged,” says Joseph about his mentors in the program. “And I accepted that challenge. Because they showed they cared about me as a person, they showed they cared about my story and who I was gonna be.”

Though no longer in the classroom day-to-day, Joseph hopes that his time with his former pupils will help them go far.

“If they’re able to not only get exposure, as any teacher could do…but then they’re able to have an example of someone who has gone off to school and do something different, then they might be able to see themselves wearing a tie one day,” Joseph said.

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