In the '90s, Carlos Valverde Jr. was a rebel in parachute pants. One day during his freshman year at a Denver high school, he was approached by a counselor who told him about a program for at-risk youth called Upward Bound.
Valverde wasn't interested, but he sat through a presentation anyway, passing the time by staring at the cute Chicana sitting next to him.
After the talk, he was in hot pursuit of the girl's phone number when the presenter stopped him cold, and asked, "Hey, homey, what college are you going to go to?"
"Nobody had ever asked me that before," Valverde recalls. Clueless and cornered, he replied, "Colorado College."
Valverde didn't even know such a school existed, but the presenter clearly did. The man stared down the boy with conviction, and pronounced, "That's right!"
As Valverde made his way through high school, he would occasionally run into the presenter, who insisted on referring to him as "Colorado College."
High school was hard for Valverde. His mom died of alcohol poisoning, three of his friends were murdered, and his father was a regular in prison.
And yet ... "after four years of high school, I was accepted at Colorado College," Valverde says.
He earned his bachelors degree there, and then a masters at Regis University. He now is a senior policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislators, where he works on issues involving education with a special emphasis on minorities.
"In the state of Colorado, we spend about $900 less on the education of children of color than we do on white students," he says.
His ascension to higher education was based on luck, as he puts it.
"We should not leave the education of our children to luck!"
The crowd rises to its feet, and applause fills the auditorium.
"Geometry is nothing'
More than 450 people of all ages and colors have shown up this Saturday for the first Educating Children of Color Summit at Colorado College's Armstrong Hall. They'll spend up to eight hours listening to speakers talk about better ways to educate minority kids.
They'll also take home recommendations on where to read more about the issue, and the educators among the group will be encouraged to enact some basic classroom strategies right away.
The summit's been sponsored by CC and organized by the Minority Overrepresentation Committee of the Fourth Judicial District, a court-based group focused on decreasing the number of minorities in the criminal justice system. Organizers later say it could become an annual event.
Today, though, they're focused on underlining the depth of the problem (see "Arresting numbers"), and asking the question: What can schools do to produce fewer criminals and more young men like Carlos Valverde?
The answer most presenters point to: "culturally responsive teaching methods."
La Vonne I. Neal, the summit's lead speaker, is a thin, spunky black woman with a background in the military and teaching. The quick-witted Neal is just as likely to slam the audience with a hard-to-swallow stat as she is to dance up the aisles to Teddy Pendergrass' "Wake Up Everybody."
Neal says everyone has to change. Parents need to know their school boards, superintendents, principals and teachers. Educators and administrators need to avoid "equity traps," such as saying kids who fail want to fail.
Instead, they can boost kids' academic self-esteem; Neal says she always referred to her students as "scholars" and "historians."
"Advertisers do a much better job than we educators do at marketing," she says, referencing adidas' "Impossible is Nothing" campaign. "Why aren't we as educators saying, "Geometry is nothing'?"
Her other tips for teachers include rearranging desks in circles with various "learning centers" around the classroom. Teachers should limit lectures to 10 minutes, she says, letting kids break into groups and practice critical thinking. The information, she says, should flow back and forth between student and teacher.
Neal says it's also important for kids to see themselves in their learning. In other words, hang up pictures of Latino astronauts and black mathematicians. Or, when teaching poetry, include Langston Hughes and Octavio Paz. Let the kids set the poems to a beat, if that inspires.
Focusing on boys
Mychal Wynn, a teacher, speaker and author of 17 books, leads a workshop addressing the struggles of black boys. Wynn understands those difficulties — he was once a black boy himself, and he's since raised two successful sons.
With the passion and humor of a great preacher, Wynn taps into the audience's emotion. He says kids need encouragement and recognition. He remembers his son coming home super-proud; a teacher had invited him to join an Advanced Placement class. Not only was Wynn's son complimented, he was motivated.
Wynn said many black boys' problems are rooted in cultural misunderstandings. Black parents, drained by constant calls from the principal's office, have poor relationships with schools. Schools, meanwhile, fail to communicate well with parents. Teachers are often afraid of black boys, and black boys often seize on their fears. Black male peer groups tend to discourage academic excellence.
Exacerbating the problems, schools often divide academically successful black boys into different classrooms, weakening positive peer groups and opening the door to negative influences.
All these problems need correcting, Wynn says. Parents need to track their children's academic progress, encourage rigorous curriculum, have a positive influence on their boys' peer groups, and create a network of people (pastors, educators, coaches) who will help their children.
"You have to identify who you're going to build relationships with on behalf of those kids," he says.
Julia Warthaw, assistant pastor at The Lord's Harvest Church in Fountain, says the tips would help her and her husband, Pastor Michael Warthaw. After the recent death of Julia's sister, the couple took in her five kids.
"It's so true, the things [Wynn] was saying," Julia says. "Like my [adopted] 16-year-old, it's like, "Where's this boy coming from?'"
Like many in the crowd, the Warthaws had sat with eyes glued on Wynn during his presentation. They'd offered an "All right" at the good stuff, and a shake of the head at all the discouraging statistics.
"The question you should be asking yourself is, "Shouldn't we be depressed?'" Wynn says. "And the answer is, "No.' We don't have time to be depressed."
Judging by the loud applause that followed, no one in the room was ready to give up on the next generation.
The need for innovation in teaching students of color perhaps is best summed up in an opening presentation by district magistrate Regina Walter.
Imagine 100 newborn black boys, she says. According to current trends, 32 will eventually go to jail or prison, and 44 will graduate from high school (though the vast majority will be below proficiency levels in reading and math). Sixteen will go to college, and six of those will earn a degree within six years.
Of the original 100, Walter says, 94 will struggle to earn a living wage.
In 2004, 80 percent of white students, 56 percent of black students and just 44 percent of Hispanic students graduated from Colorado high schools. Meanwhile, more than 60 percent of the prison population comes from a racial or ethnic minority. For black males in their 20s, the statistics are more grim: One in every eight is in jail or prison on any given day.