Ken Kemp walked down the stairs of the College Park Library to greet his guest. A groundskeeper ignored the two men and continued to cut the grass with a riding mower. The noise made it hard for a conversation to take place. Kemp, a professional school counselor at a metro Atlanta charter school, is used to talking in extreme circumstances. He is the only Black male counselor at his school and spends a lot of time communicating with young Black men and women on how to block out the background noise and focus on the mission at hand. 

Ken Kemp, a professional school counselor, says he wants to be “a safe space and a representation for the students.”

“I just want to be a safe space and a representation for the students,” said Kemp, 37. He sees the disparity in his profession as a problem that can be solved, but it’s going to take some work. 

According to the United States Department of Education only 7% of teachers are Black, while only 2% are Black men. That low level of representation alarms Kemp, whose father was a longtime educator. Having someone who looked like him and therefore was a representation of him gave him the motivation to start a career in education. That is a large part of what Kemp and other Black male educators The Atlanta Voice talked about for this special report feel is missing the most from a lack of Black men in the school systems in Georgia and around the country. “We have to funnel out more ideas to get Black men to come back to education and serve and advocate for our kids,” said Kemp, whose son attends Tennessee State University. “We are not at the table making the policies and the rules that disproportionately affect our kids, specifically Black boys.”

Black students, particularly Black boys, are suspended at a much higher rate than white students, according to a 2001 study by the American Psychological Association. Those suspensions and the isolation that comes from being at home while their peers are in school can lead to a dip in grades and classroom behavior. The rise in virtually learning and the damage wrought from not being in a communal setting during the height of the Covid pandemic can be elevated even more when suspended.

Kemp said that the kids he works with at school share traumatic experiences with him and that he is glad to be there to not only guide them, but to listen. A sympathetic and familiar ear can go a long way to helping solve or reveal an issue, he says. “Many of us have never had a Black male teacher or counselor or someone in an academic role, not too much,” said Kemp, who has been a counselor at his school for five of his seven-year career. “To have someone sitting across the table from you that looks like you is powerful.”

Dr. Donald Prater has worked in Atlanta Public Schools for nearly three decades. “Twenty-seven years with Atlanta Public Schools and we haven’t solved it yet,” he said of the lack of Black male educators.

A male presence

As the auditorium at Booker T. Washington High School filled with students a man made his way to the front of the room. Dr. Donald Prater has seen this scenario many times before during his 27 years as an educator in the Atlanta Public School system. As a professional school counselor, Prater, a father of a son who is a senior at another high school, is that fatherly figure both literally and figuratively. He is also part disciplinarian and big brother in his role as a counselor and believes the lack of discipline at home means a familiar face at school can make a huge difference. He says a “large majority” of his parent-counselor conferences are with single mothers or just with mothers alone. “The male ego can be a problem,” he said. 

After close to three decades in public school education Prater was asked if he sees a solution to the issue of not having enough Black men in the classrooms, libraries and counselor’s offices in schools across the country? His answer was frank, “Twenty-seven years with Atlanta Public Schools and we haven’t solved it yet.”

Former Morris Brown College football player Brian Ashley towers over the students at Hutchinson Elementary School in Atlanta, his presence in the school’s library is as uncommon as the sight of multiple Black male teachers in the city’s public schools. Ashley, Library Media Specialist has worked in Atlanta Public Schools for the past 20 years. According to the United States Department of Education, less than 2% of the 7% of Black teachers are counselors, and it is safe to say less than that are librarians. In fact, of the more than 80,000 librarians in the United States, only 31% are men and only 6% are Black, according to the career data website Zippia.  

So the odds of a young Black male seeing a Black man working the information desk inside his local or school library are even less than in his classroom.

“I always wanted to serve as a mentor to young men,” said Ashley, who is a father to a six-year-old son. “I had Black male teachers growing up [in Florida].” 

Ashley’s high school football coach Max Wiltz, who was also his social studies teacher, remains an inspiration, he says. “I was always surrounded by great Black male educators. Ashley, who also coaches football, believes it is “extremely important” to have Black male representation in as many classrooms, libraries and on as many fields at schools as possible. “Our young Black men need to see educators that look like them,” he said.

What’s in it for us

As the cost of a dozen eggs, a gallon of gas or the rent on a two-bedroom apartment continues to go up throughout the country, the decision to begin a career in education becomes more and more difficult for another generation. 

The average salary for a public school teacher in the United States during the 2021 academic year was $65,050, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Things are looking up however, as that salary was a nearly 2% raise from the 2020 academic year. Is that enough money to keep the few Black men in education or enough to convince a young Black man to pursue the profession? 

“In a lot of school districts there is a lack of salaries that can support families,” reasoned Prater. “I’ve seen male educators leave the profession for higher salaries.”

Salaries like the annual wages for software engineers is just under $122,000, according to Scholaroo.  Kemp believes educator salaries need to change, but there also more can be done by Historically Black Colleges and Universities to make educator careers like professional school counselors more appealing to students. He is currently working on his doctorate while he also works with Albany State University’s school counseling program as a supervisor/mentor. The program places students majoring in school counseling into high schools and Kemp believes this can help build a pipeline for the future. “I’ll take them to the classroom and do a classroom lesson,” Kemp said. “These are young people and I make sure that they are gaining expertise in new areas.”

Kemp says the ultimate goal would be to get school counseling programs at the schools in the Atlanta University Center. “My overall dream would be to get those four schools together,” he said. “I feel like our job as Black school counselors is to take the extra step.”

“We need to get more Black and brown brothers into working in education,” Kemp said, whose son attends Tennessee State University. “

 This article is one of a series of articles produced by The Atlanta Voice through support provided by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to Word In Black, a collaborative of 10 Black-owned media outlets across the country. 

Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Donnell began his career covering sports and news in Atlanta nearly two decades ago. Since then he has written for Atlanta Business Chronicle, The Southern Cross...