By Don Bradley
Mid-afternoon finds Cornell Ellis sitting in a southland Panera, booth to himself, headphones and laptop.
Fresh from one meeting, headed to another, the former Rockhurst/Mizzou football player and soon-to-be this year’s Truman Distinguished Speaker at Avila University is dragging just a bit. His baby girl got him up at 4:30 that morning.
Maybe she knows Daddy wants to change the world. You have to get up early to do that.
Actually, Ellis wants to change pretty much everything about how kids go to school. Everything.
Why would he want to do that?
“Because teachers hate school,” he said, snapping out finger one. “Administrators hate school (finger two), students hate school (finger three).”
Ellis, 33, married, two kids, is executive director of Brothers Liberating our Communities (BLOC), an organization started in 2016 to bring more Black men into teaching.
No easy task.
“Why would they want to return to school?” he asks. “They hated school.”
A reason for that, he said, is that less than two percent of American teachers are Black men. It’s hard for Black students to see role models in something they will never be. They need to see a shared culture and background.
He cites research that says black students who have a black teacher for at least one year of elementary school are less likely to drop out and more likely to attend college.
So Ellis and BLOC are determined to use high school and college partnerships to bring more black men into the teaching ranks.
People at Avila, where Ellis earned a history degree, have been watching.
“Cornell lives his beliefs and lives his values,” said Sue Ellen McCalley, a professor in the school’s education and psychology department. “He knows kids need to see a teacher who looks like them.”
For the past 12 years, McCalley has also served as chair of Avila’s Truman Lecture Series, the only speaker series Truman agreed to lend his name to.
The series began in 1970 and lecturers over the years include heavyweights such as former U.S. Senator Nancy Kassebaum, political analyst William Buckley, former FBI director Clarence Kelley and World War II POW and Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini whose story was chronicled in the book and movie Unbroken.
The theme for this year is the book “This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women.” Based partly on the old Edward R. Murrow TV show from the 1950s, the book, studied by Avila students, is a compilation of essays written by notables such as Gloria Steinem, Bill Gates, Eleanor Roosevelt and Colin Powell.
“These are people whose lives were guided by a personal philosophy,” McCalley said. “Cornell is a perfect example of that. He’s dynamic.”
In turn, Ellis is grateful and honored –and reinforced.
“It helps affirm the great feelings we have about what we’re doing,” he said.
This guy can talk football. Loves to talk football. The Rockhurst 2007 team that went undefeated and won a state championship. His time playing linebacker at Mizzou during the run of Coach Gary Pinkel.
Like a lot of big-time college players, he wanted to play in the NFL.
“I was 6 foot, 220, 35 inch vertical–I had the numbers,” he said.
But he got hurt, finished his playing days at Avila. Then asked himself a question: “Well, I’m not going to the NFL…what am I gonna do?”
He did some coaching, did some teaching, even did some furniture moving.
But at Avila he had found a love for academics, and he never got too far from his major areas of history and ancient worlds.
“I love history, the past, the story that gets you where you are,” he said.
Particularly, the history of black students and who was teaching them.
When BLOC was formed in 2016, the primary mission was to retain black males already teaching in the Kansas City area. The strategy was to bring them into the organization, to talk about why they began teaching in the first place and to keep that fire burning.
When Ellis, whose mother just recently retired as a teacher, became executive director, the group took on recruitment. Part of his grand plan is to develop cooperative relationships in which industry professionals, such as architects, chemists, engineers, business people and others come into schools on a regular basis to work with students. That’s where some new black teachers would come from.
“Real-world learning, preparing kids for today’s jobs,” said Ellis, who also calls for a complete overhaul of school funding formulas, and says teacher pay should be doubled, though he acknowledges the challenge of that last one.
Nobody knows how successful he and BLOC will be. The goal is a lofty 30 percent increase in black teachers over the next five years.
But Ellis said he’s heard from people in other cities inquiring about the Kansas City effort.
“I think, I hope, we can be a beacon for the country,” he said. “And if we can do some of these things…. then I will know I was meant to do more than move furniture.”
The 2023 Truman Lecture Series will be Oct. 25 at Goppert Theatre, 11901 Wornall Rd. on the Avila campus. The event, open and free to the public, begins with a panel discussion at 4:40 p.m. with the lecture to follow.