Keenan Jones, 38, is on a mission to transform Minnesota’s educational system and advance Black achievement. A 2001 graduate of Osseo High School, Jones is passionate about closing the educational gap between students of color and their white peers. As a Hopkins School District elementary teacher, Jones founded the nonprofit Literacy for Freedom to help Black boys achieve proficient literacy levels, receive mentorship and learn about Black history. Jones also serves on the Minnesota Children’s Cabinet, led by Gov. Tim Walz, and is an advocate for teacher diversity. He reflects on his work, what drives him and solutions he believes will give Black boys their best chance at success.
Q: Tell me more about Literacy for Freedom and how you became interested in helping Black boys improve their literacy skills.
A: I’ve been in education for 13 years and have always been curious about Black boys not engaging in reading. In 2018, I decided to get my master’s degree in literacy education from Hamline University. I graduated in the spring of 2019. My research focused on the Black male literacy gap, Black male achievement and Black male identity in public education. In my studies, I learned about many flaws in our public education system, the school-to-prison pipeline, low proficiency in reading for Black boys, and how to support Black boys in their academic careers. A quote that stuck out to me during my studies was from the great Frederick Douglass: “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” I was teaching junior high English in the fall of 2019 and I pitched this idea to a group of 15 Black boys to form a student group for them focusing on identity, literacy and what it means to be a Black man in America. They loved it and Literacy for Freedom was born.
Q: How did Literacy for Freedom’s scope change after George Floyd was murdered?
A: After his murder, I knew the young men that I mentored would need a space to vent. Many of our group sessions centered on police brutality, bias and systemic racism. Seeing these intelligent, vibrant, young men look defeated and confused from the murder, I knew it was time for me to do more. My thoughts were, “If Black males in this community are feeling this way, how many Black males across the Twin Cities are feeling this way?”
Q: How did you make your vision a reality?
A: I got my notebook out and spent the summer of 2020 doing more research, talked to Black male scholars, and I sought input from local communities. Literacy for Freedom is now a registered 501(c)(3) organization where the mission is to inspire, empower, and motivate Black boys to achieve greatness. It will take a village of people including schools, community members, politicians and families to change this narrative that exists for Black males. Black males have been leaders in our country for over a century and we won’t stop being leaders.
Q: You started as a teacher at Hopkins and have since switched to innovation, design and learning specialist. Can you tell me a bit about that transition?
A: I applied for a district leadership role a few years back and didn’t get it, but this time I just had a feeling I was ready, so I applied again and got the role. This transition has been an eye-opening experience because now I’m seeing education from another perspective. I’m charged with helping lead the district’s vision, which is centered on closing the achievement gap, increasing teacher diversity and transforming education to meet the needs of the 21st century. It’s a lot of work, a ton of research, but most importantly I get to lead the district.
Q: What’s at risk for Black students if they don’t have a proficient literacy level?
A: There is an increasing disparity among Black boys and literacy proficiency in comparison to white and Asian boys nationally. Early literacy scores have become a critical indicator of their futures. If Black boys aren’t proficient in reading, they are four times more likely to drop out of school. If they aren’t in school, they are more likely to engage in negative behaviors which could put them potentially on the school-to-prison pipeline path. It’s important when we are looking to advance literacy outcomes for Black boys that we look to some of these important items such as critical literacy strategies, early literacy, culturally relevant texts and giving educators the tools to design literacy experiences that encourage critical examination and foster personal connections. There is so much that we can do to strengthen literacy for our Black boys because they are more than capable.
Q: Does a school-to-prison pipeline exist in Minnesota?
A: Yes, and unfortunately, it’s starting when these young men begin in pre-K. There is also an opportunity gap for Black males in our state. I have personal connections to Black males who I have taught or known that struggled academically in school, dropped out of school, and spent time in prisons across the Midwest.
Q: But I’m certain that you also have success stories.
A: I also have many success stories of Black males that I have mentored that have gone on to be successful whether that be in college or other career tracks. These young men are now contributing to their communities and raising families. It’s going to take a “village” of support from schools, communities, and families to keep our Black boys in schools and out of these prisons. We can do it, but it’s got to be a collective effort.
Q: According to the Minnesota Department of Human Rights, Black students are eight times more likely to be suspended or expelled compared to white students. How can our educational system do better?
A: Our education system needs to really have a better understanding of Black male learning styles so that we don’t continue to educate them with a deficit lens. Demonstration of care is highly important to Black students and specifically Black males, because in the grand scheme of things, teaching is all about relationships. Regarding suspensions, I believe that we need to focus on the impact of school disciplinary policies in relation to Black students (boys), develop positive behavior interventions in the early years, monitor school climates using restorative justice practices and help school staff understand the connections between race and discipline patterns specific to Black males. There also needs to be direct investments in the schools and the communities where Black males reside. After-school activities can keep them off the streets and focused on preparing for their futures. I know some young Black males right now that have amazing skills in the world of technology, but minimum programs exist for them to perfect their crafts.
Q: What’s your role with Black Men Teach?
A: I’ve been a strong advocate for teacher diversity and [I’m] currently doing work with a great organization called Black Men Teach, which aims to put Black men in elementary classrooms. I’m also a co-facilitator of Hopkins Public Schools’ Educators of Color Mentorship program, where the focus is on recruitment, retention and building community for our teachers of color to thrive. It’s a blessing to be involved with so many things, but my mission is always to help young people be their best selves.