We're in a crisis when it comes to the dearth of black male teachers.
It's a travesty how nationwide, just 2 percent of the country's teachers are black males. In Philly, just under 5 percent of teachers are African American males, even though 54 percent of the student population is black. That's why I have to hand it to men like Howard Brown, a second-year teacher at Northeast High School. He heard the call. He understood the need. And he made the ultimate sacrifice to do what needed to be done.
A former exec at Goldman Sachs, the 36-year-old once earned more money than he knew what to do with. He had a fly condo with marble floors, a Jacuzzi, and a fabulous view of Manhattan. He had season tickets to the Eagles and Yankees. He was traveling with friends to South America and Europe. But when you're living as large as he was back then, sometimes people get to the point where they realize there's more to life than collecting material things like the latest BMW convertible he once considered purchasing. Now, he's back in Philly and is about to start his second year teaching at Northeast. Classes started Monday and he could hardly wait.
"I will tell you the truth. I love it," he told me. "I don't have to do it, to be quite honest. But it's pretty cool."
When he shares stories with his students about his high-flying, baller days in finance, they ask why he's at Northeast with them instead of somewhere doing something more exciting. He admonishes them, saying, "That's like going on a date with Beyoncé and asking her, 'Why are you with me?' You are disqualifying yourself."
On Friday, he had posters of sports figures laid out on a table ready to be hung on the cinder-block walls. He'll teach sports marketing and business administration to 11th and 12th graders.
After he graduated from Temple University's Fox School of Business and Management in 2005, Goldman Sachs hired him to work as a foreign exchange trader. He did that for three years before moving back home to Philly as a vice president for a major local bank.
I met Brown in 2014 when I was working on a story about Meek Mill, the homegrown Philly rap superstar. Brown was one of a number of prominent and successful men who stepped forward to mentor him while he was incarcerated in Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility.
That's the kind of guy Brown is. He didn't have to go sit up in that dark, dreary prison with Mill. He didn't have to spend his valuable time volunteering for the School District of Philadelphia. He didn't have to give all of those unpaid talks to students. But he did. And luckily for his future students, when the former principal of Northeast High talked to him about joining the teaching profession, he decided to give it a try. He's one of 19 black male teachers at Northeast out of a total of 184. An estimated 53 percent of the student body identifies as African American.
Studies show that having even one black teacher early on can make a difference with low-income students. Besides my dad, who was a public-school teacher for 45 years, and my mother, who was an elementary school librarian, I had very few instructors who looked like me until I got to Howard University. I would have loved to have been in Brown's class.
On Friday, he was dressed sharply in a well-cut business suit looking every bit the part of the chief executive of Brown Holdings, a company he cofounded that deals with social infrastructure and economic development. But for his students, he plans to sport T-shirts from the University of Pennsylvania, and Spelman and Morehouse Colleges. One of his main reasons for being there is to counter negative stereotypes about black men.
"If I'm a young black male in a classroom and I see a Mr. Brown, I see a positive image," pointed out Chad Dion Lassiter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.
So, just by standing in front of his class on Monday, the first lesson was taught.