When principal James Johnson walks the hallways of STAR Academy Charter School in Memphis, students frequently reach out to give him a fist bump or a high five.

Johnson revels in such impromptu connections. As the new principal, he has worked quickly to create a new kind of culture at the mostly African-American elementary school, where he and two other young black males serve as the top leaders.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
James Johnson visits a classroom at STAR Academy, where he became principal last fall.

“We know it makes a difference if we’re excited to greet our students,” said Johnson, 29. “We want to be here, we want them to be here, and we want them to be excited about that.”

Opened in 2004, STAR is one of Memphis’ oldest charter schools but turned to new leadership to address static enrollment and academic performance. Johnson was recruited last fall by Robert Harvey, 28, who became STAR’s chief executive officer in 2016 and hired Edward Stephens, 31, as chief strategy officer.

The trio of young black male administrators stands out in the world of elementary education. Nationwide, only 2 percent of K-12 educators are black men. It’s slightly better in Shelby County Schools, which oversees more than 40 charter schools including STAR. Male educators of color comprise almost 10 percent of the workforce in the Memphis district.

Research shows that for students like those at STAR, where 94 percent of children are of color, the presence of an educator who looks like them can make a big difference, especially for boys. A recent study showed that black boys in Tennessee and North Carolina were 39 percent less likely to drop out of high school if they had just one black teacher in the third, fourth or fifth grades.

But recruiting such educators continues to be a struggle for Tennessee districts, reflecting a nationwide challenge. Of the candidates who completed the state’s teacher programs in 2016, only 14 percent identified themselves as non-white, compared with 36 percent of Tennessee’s student population.

Harvey came to Memphis by way of the East Coast, where he worked as an administrator with several private boarding schools. As a graduate student at Harvard University, he studied black male students, academic achievement and poverty in Memphis — research that he now calls “serendipitous” because of his arrival at STAR Academy.

Harvey is well aware that his own academic journey offers hope to his students, and boys in particular.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman/Chalkbeat
Students raise their hands during a lesson at STAR Academy.

“For young men in elementary school, we know a guiding factor for the prison pipeline is third-grade literacy,” Harvey said. “We’re going to offer a counter narrative through our leadership team. We’re here to shift the conversation with our students and show them that their futures are in no way pre-determined.”

That means rethinking school culture, parental engagement, and student discipline at STAR, which has an enrollment of 248. Last year, the school suspended 10 students. Harvey’s goal is to get that number to zero.

“When a student — in particular a black boy — is suspended, the chances of them graduating high school is reduced and the chances of them going to prison is increased,” Harvey said. “We have students sit with us for hours sometimes rather than sending them home. And we don’t believe in a compounding discipline model, either. Every day is a fresh start for a child.”

Toward that end, the school’s new “check system” for discipline gives each student four chances to improve behavior before experiencing a consequence. Building relationships are key, according to Johnson, himself a former elementary school teacher in Memphis.

“We’re working with our teachers on discipline training, but also in giving them support in the classroom so they can focus on instruction,” Johnson said. “We know many of our students don’t have a direct male presence at home. We’re trying to be a visible, positive influence. A handshake or hug can do a lot.”

Shelia Matthews, a longtime STAR teacher, said she’s already seeing a difference in school culture.

“Some are big changes, but some are little things, like leadership going out to greet the car line every morning during drop-off,” she said. “They’ve gained respect in a short amount of time.”

Charlie Tate, the father of a fifth-grader and active in the school’s basketball program, said he was nervous at first about the leadership change but now sees how Harvey and his team are building relationships that might have eluded other administrators.

“I can tell you because of my experience with the basketball team, a lot of children don’t have father figures in the house,” he said. “In their teachers, they’ve had positive role models and relationships with women, and that’s great. But seeing a man who looks like them in a role of principal or school leader or teacher while they’re so young, I’ve realized what a huge deal that is to these boys.”