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The seal of the state of South Carolina has the phrase “Animis opibusque parati,” which means “Prepared in mind and resources.” While the state is rich with natural resources across its thousands of acres of lush land, South Carolina had some growing to do in the preparation of the minds of its children.

18 years ago, Dr. Roy Jones and Clemson University discovered some alarming numbers in the state’s education system. The state ranked dead last in the nation’s education ranking and its minority students faced bleak life outcomes with disproportionate dropout, college matriculation and incarceration rates. The inequities also spilled over into the classroom where, in a state where one-third of the population is African American, less than one percent of the teachers in the public elementary schools were black men.

Then Clemson stepped in with a solution and promise to the state seal by creating Call Me MISTER.

“In the late 90’s South Carolina had more black men in prison than in dormitories,” said Dr. Roy Jones, Executive Director of Call Me MISTER. “Before it became a national conversation, we looked at our schools and noticed there was a significant shortage of black male teachers, specifically at the early childhood and elementary level. At the time, there were just under 200 black male teachers out of 20,000 educators across our 600+ schools.”

In 2000, Clemson partnered with Benedict College, Claflin University and Morris College in the state to create a pipeline of black men into the class and develop Call Me MISTER’s first cohort. Today the program has expanded to 23 two-year and four-year colleges and universities across the state.

“We believe in the development of young black men,” said Jones. “Since our first cohort graduated in 2004, 90% of our MISTERs are native sons of South Carolina and we have a 100% graduation and job offer rate within our program. 95% of those men are still in classrooms today and the others have gone onto administrative leaders and other careers with ties to public education throughout the state of South Carolina.”

Jones and the Call Me MISTER program isn’t alone in emphasizing the importance of black male educators in our K-12 system. According to research, when black students have just one black male teacher from kindergarten to 5th grade, they are 39% less likely to drop out of high school and 20% more likely to go to college. One of the National Urban League’s education priorities is diversifying the teacher pipeline and focusing on culturally competent instruction.

“A part of what we mean when we say grow your own, is that our teachers come from many of the same communities where they go back to teach,” said Jones. “In our program, we emphasize that education isn’t just an experience, it’s personal, and that being an educator is more than a college major, it’s about knowing who you are and where you come from. We help the men in our cohorts understand their story and prepare them to articulate in a way that engages their students. It would be educational malpractice in my mind to send teachers into the classroom who aren’t able to recognize and understand the unique issues of our students.”

To prepare the young men once they’re accepted into the program, Call Me MISTER provides a full set of supports including mentors and internship opportunities along with an intensive curriculum that runs parallel to their college coursework.

“We provide a four-year leadership development program that is built on a cohort model,” said Jones. “Each school where we have a program has three to five young men in each cohort that live in the same dorms, take the same classes, have regular counseling during the academic year and paid internship opportunities over each summer for a seven-week period in addition to attending an annual summer leadership institute.”

Call Me MISTER isn’t shy about stating its mission to build a pipeline of black male teachers, but Jones and others also recognize the challenges many black men face getting into college and are working to address them.

“When you have a state like South Carolina that is historically ranked so poorly academically in the nation, with dismal graduation rates, you can imagine what the outcomes are like for young black men and women,” said Jones. “We are in the early stages of building partnerships with our K-12 school districts and we’re beginning to collaborate on our first Call Me MISTER recruitment event at a local high school in the coming weeks where we’ll invite students, their families and our graduates to come and discuss who we are, what we offer and how this program can change the lives of these young men. Because of the challenges in our education landscape, we’re not looking necessarily for the so-called ‘best and brightest,’ instead we’re looking for young men that can do the work, whether they start at the four-year or community college level. We look for virtues, qualities and dispositions that we think we can cultivate into great educators.”

Today, Call Me MISTER has successfully graduated over 240 men from its program and through its expansion has 180 young men currently in cohorts across the state and has expanded to nine states outside of South Carolina.

“Beyond creating educators, what we’re doing is creating home-grown leaders in the communities where they come from,” said Jones. “Outside of their work in the classroom, the young men in our cohorts develop the academic, professional and personal skills to be effective leaders in and outside of the classroom. Many have gone on to become teacher of the year in their local districts across the state and have a lasting impact in their communities. We believe in the potential of our young men and we’re unapologetic about who we are, what we do and why it matters.”