After years of teaching and administration in the Lawrence public school system, Willie Amison began to see a problem with black students, in particular males, in regard to academic achievement.
Amison met with other members of Lawrence’s black community and set out to create a program, Can We Talk, to help young people.
“Can We Talk is a mentoring program started by four gentlemen: myself, Craig Butler, Isaac ‘Bud’ Stallworth and Capt. Ed Brunt,” Amison said. “It was started in 2007. The whole intent was to work with African-American males. We were trying to address the educational disparity between those kids that are of color and the majority kids. There’s a huge achievement gap, and we knew it wasn’t because of lack of intelligence.”
Amison, now retired from his assistant principal post at Lawrence High School and employed by Kansas University, also thought there were some experiences the young men weren’t getting in their lives, so he tried to address this by bringing in guest speakers — affluent members of the Lawrence community — to explain how hard work and success go hand in hand.
Amison says the group quickly moved beyond catering only to black students.
“As time goes on, the girls wanted to come on board, and then white kids came on board, and Native American and Hispanic kids, Latinos, they came on board as well,” he says. “So, it kind of became a very diverse group of kids. We take them on field trips, we have speakers coming in and telling their stories. We didn’t want them to be lectured to; we just wanted kids to see and hear the various individuals in the community’s stories on how they got to where they are today.”
Low cost, high impact
Can We Talk quickly branched out from Lawrence High School to Free State High and to Liberty Memorial Central Middle School. Amison says the success of programs like this shows what can be done with hard work and at low cost to help students.
“My major focus was to show that it could happen, that (closing the gap in educational disparity) can be done. We don’t have to have all of these fancy programs going on and pay a lot more money; all we have to do is put our time and effort in certain areas to show a huge difference in how kids succeed and not succeed in school and in turn succeed in life.”
Ed West, Free State High School principal, says Amison has been invaluable for the Can We Talk program because he has so much experience with the Lawrence community.
“He’s been fantastic. He obviously, as a former administrator at the elementary level and at the high school in the district, knows kids well and he knows the history of the district well. As a fairly new person to the district, I learned at Free State what he had known for years: that so many of our students of color didn’t perform as well on test scores. So much was due to a disconnect, not understanding the purpose and the importance of the tests.”
West says that as the group has grown over the years at Free State, much like at Lawrence High it has shifted away from being about only improving in the classroom. He says Can We Talk’s goals are multifaceted now.
“It goes beyond just education,” he says. “They’re out taking field trips and going on college visits and doing all kinds of things. It really started with Amison and a few other folks to recognize the needs of our students of color and stepping forward to try and make a difference. Rather than sitting there and pointing fingers they got active and were part of the solution.”
Fellow founder of Can We Talk Craig Butler says part of the reason the four founders saw this need in the community was from their own experiences growing up.
“One of the things we thought about was helping these kids navigate the system, and we all have had experiences with that. Especially being older black men, we’ve seen what the system can do. We want our kids to be aware of it. All four of us have had conversations individually and collectively over the years about what we could do.”
Butler says while he wishes success for all Lawrence students, he sees a pressing need in particular for black students to receive assistance.
“We need to give our kids as much support as we can. We need to give all kids support as we can, but especially our black males. They are the ones who are most endangered in our society. And not just in Lawrence, nationwide. Look at the statistics.”
As to Amison’s role with the project, the man Butler says is a “great guy” has a legacy that goes beyond this project. Butler says Amison has impacted Lawrence’s youth for the better over his time here as an educator and mentor.
“He has a very nurturing personality, a very caring personality and he’s willing to share his knowledge to help kids be all they can be,” Butler says. “That’s Willie. The community of Lawrence has been blessed to have a person of his character and caliber to walk around this town. That’s the truth.”