Black dads show up to teach kids the value of school

Markevius Kemp was crouched between his two boys on the opening day of school when a DeKalb County school employee snapped a photo of them before class began at Flat Shoals Elementary School.

He said he was just doing what he always does. But the photo of the black man and his two children apparently tugged at heartstrings as it, and a short story on the effort urging black men to bring their children to school on the first day, was shared and liked by thousands on social media. Many applauded Kemp, a single dad, for doing something black men get knocked for not doing enough: being there.

“It’s been a struggle, but I need to be there for my kids,” Kemp says. “No matter what.”

According to U.S. Census data, more than 24 million children don’t live with their biological fathers, which is about one in three children. In black families, nearly two-thirds don’t.

At Flat Shoals that day, black men flooded the hallways at the urging of Principal Laconduas Freeman, in her second year at the school, where nearly all students are black. The effort was part of a national plan to get more black men involved in encouraging education of children who look like them.

Freeman is a local organizer in the Million Father March, a national effort started by the Chicago nonprofit The Black Star Project, where men are encouraged to support children on the first day of school as they begin a new year. This year, 60 fathers, grandfathers and community members greeted children and took them to class on the first day at Flat Shoals. Kemp was among them.

Men “emphasizing the importance of an education is just really key,” Freeman said, and the effort at Flat Shoals “pretty much has taken on a larger scale than I could have imagined.”

Ernest Brown understands that effort. He spent years attending parent meetings and coaching sports and continues to participate in districtwide initiatives even though his children have all graduated from the DeKalb County School District. He’s passionate about children receiving an education and wants to make sure other children get the same encouragement he gave his four. He takes pride in the fact that his oldest son, now 25, is volunteering with youth where he lives in Oakland, Calif., to encourage them through adolescence.

“I’m following the example I saw when I was growing up,” Brown said. “My father was heavily involved in my education. I’ve told my children I expect the same from them. Passing it forward, so to speak.”

Kemp is an anomaly in the sense that he’s a single black dad with custody of his children. About 15 percent of single-father households are run by black men.

He separated from the boys’ mom when Micah was 1 and Marquez was 3. It was not an easy start. They spent time bouncing around to different houses, living on various friends’ and relatives’ couches, and spent some time in a motel.

It takes a lot of outside help balancing school, his work and their activities, Kemp said.

He gets cereal or oatmeal ready for the boys before taking them to school or their bus stop, then naps while they’re getting their lessons. He goes to work at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in the afternoon, dumping waste from airplanes at GAT Airline Ground Support. His mother, Danita Lucas, picks up the kids from day care, looks over their homework and makes sure they get dinner. Kemp picks up the boys after he leaves work around 11 p.m.

Explore»» Photos: One single dad’s school day morning

Marlene Lucas, Markevius Kemp’s grandmother, said she’s proud her grandson is making an honest way for his boys.

“He’s really trying to do the best he can,” said Lucas, who lives in Atlanta. “It gets a little tough sometimes, but I tell him to put a lot of prayer to that. You just can’t run out here in the streets and think you’re gonna sell drugs to make it. I’m so proud of him. He’s a mother and a father to them. And he’s doing it right.”

Kenneth Braswell says the narrative about dads not being there is about the exception, not the whole.

He’s the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Fathers Inc., which provides professional development and other social service contacts for fathers.

“I challenge you to go to any elementary school and stand out in front in the morning when these kids are being brought to school … and I can guarantee you the number of fathers that bring their children to school in the morning is staggering,” he said.

Braswell participates in a program for fathers at Dunwoody Elementary School, where one of his five children attend. An author, he also read his children’s books to classes in the building. Being active in the school has made for a stronger relationship with his son, he said.

“For me to be able to engage on that level with him in schools raises his self-esteem, gives him confidence, gives him a level of security to know his father is engaged with him on those levels,” Braswell said.

Black role models among teachers in metro Atlanta classrooms are scarce. Though the metro Atlanta population is majority minority, black males make up about 8 percent of teaching staffs. About 80 percent of the teachers are female, and more than two-thirds of female teachers are white. Studies have suggested the presence of teachers who look like their students boost a student's quality of life, grades, test scores and graduation rates.

The Black Star Project provides educational services to help close the racial academic achievement gap.

Dorothy Davis, director of operations for the nonprofit, said 922 organizers held events at schools in 581 cities in 41 states across the country, in Canada and Trinidad and Tabago. Schools across the country hold events on the first day and throughout the school year, using black men as the guide.

“Parental engagement is key,” Davis said. “They test better, they’re not truant. Just because their parents are involved in their education,” she said. “You have some parents that are fearful of their students getting to and from schools. It’s a domino effect where (the parents) end up volunteering.

“The children aren’t just learning inside the school; They’re doing what they need to do (at home) to keep up.”