WebExtra: Teaching leadership skills

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Michael Stinson had one last lesson for the 13 young men he had spent months mentoring. It was the last meeting of the school year for Julian Middle School’s Leadership Academy for African-American Young Men, and Stinson wanted to send them on summer break with a vivid exercise that would provide them with a lesson for the future.

Taking to the blackboard, Stinson made three columns and labeled them—Red Apple, Green Apple and Rotten Apple. Then he asked the young men to name characteristics typically associated with each type of apple.

Quickly it became clear where Stinson was going. He wanted the young men to associate the qualities they prized in red apples—solid, desirable, fully developed—with the people they chose to spend time with, whether in school or out.  Conversely, he wanted them to see the perils of rotten apples—people who are a bad influence and would steer them wrong, and should be avoided at all costs.

Stinson got the young men’s attention. And they got his lesson. His hope now is that the lesson stays with them over the summer and beyond.

Stinson’s session took place as part of Oak Park District 97’s Leadership Academy, which draws on the experiences and insights of male mentors to help close the performance gap between African-American male students and their peers in the district, which includes Julian and Brooks middle schools. The goal is to raise achievement, foster leadership skills and decrease behavioral incidents that might lead to suspension of black boys.

The Academy was launched in the 2008-2009 school year and despite some road bumps, the pilot year proved promising enough to spur the School Board to renew the program for a second year, with changes that officials hope will make the program more effective.

While Oak Park has a relatively diverse population and many black parents have moved there from Chicago to take advantage of high-performing schools, academic success for their children, for the most part, remains elusive. With a black student enrollment around 30 percent, the district has only six African American male teachers, and black parents and school staff often see this under-representation as one reason young black males have a harder time navigating the system. The Academy was designed to address that by providing black male mentors as role models that both parents and students could depend on.

District 97 includes Julian and Brooks middle schools; at both schools, about one in three students is African American.  A report completed in May showed that overall, Oak Park’s black and low-income elementary students start the school year at a much lower level of achievement and their improvement over the course of the year, while steady, is not sufficient to close the achievement gap.

 “We look at the ISAT (Illinois Standards Achievement Test), and African-American males are not doing as well,” says District 97 Superintendent Constance Collins, who is black. “When you look at behavioral information, we have African-American males disproportionately referred for service in special education [and] overrepresented in suspensions.”

The idea for the Academy took shape after a team of district educators learned about a successful program started several years ago in Kentucky’s Fayette County Public Schools called BMW, or Black Males Working.

Lynn Allen, District 97’s director of multicultural education, attended a conference of the National Council on Educating Black Children and heard retired educator Roszalyn Akins present her work on the BMW program. Allen came away convinced that students in Oak Park could benefit from something similar, especially if it emphasized mentoring. “We felt that our African-American men needed to be with other men as role models,” says Allen. She describes her program as one that “seeks to “educate, motivate and activate the potential for excellence that lies within every African American male.”

Akins’ program got results. “The number of African American males sent to the principal’s office (for misbehavior) was cut 55 percent in one school,” says Akins. “We’ve seen ACT scores go up, grades improve, [increased] self-confidence. And the discipline has really improved.”

Impressed with what Akins accomplished, Allen and Brooks Middle School teacher Lindsay Pietrzak and teaching assistant Don Robinson joined with a committee of parents, counselors, principals and social workers to write a proposal for a Leadership Academy similar to Akins’ program. The proposal included after-school meetings three days a week with participants and volunteer mentors who could help them with homework and life skills, says Robinson, who attended elementary and high school in Oak Park. Healthy snacks, field trips, workshops, community service and a mandatory family education and support component were included. Collins and the District 97 School Board agreed to fund the proposal for a pilot year.

Teachers, assistant principals and social workers referred students to the program (Except for one Latino student, all Academy participants have been African-American males.)

One hurdle was consistent participation. Julian 8th-grader Emmanuel Jenkins joined the Academy in early 2009, but stopped attending for a while. Eventually, however, he realized the benefits and returned. “It was a good thing,” he says. “It changed how I act, like [I’m] more mature.”

During sessions, mentors and students talked candidly about topics such as use of the “n-word,” wearing baggy pants, and handling anger, says Allen.  The students also read and discussed “Letters to a Young Brother,” a collection of essays and inspirational writing compiled by TV actor and Harvard Law School graduate Hill Harper.

 Emmanuel, an animated 14-year-old now on his way to high school, says the program has helped him reach out to younger kids “to keep them out of trouble.” Reminded of the apple analogy, he says he’ll now be able to resist peer pressure in high school and stay on the right track—that is, he’ll steer clear of rotten apples, as Stinson advised.

Another Julian 8th-grader, Zach Booth, who has a serious demeanor and an impressive vocabulary, says the program has taught him that leadership “is about always being a red apple. Leadership is about responsibility, respect, common sense and maturity.”

Zach’s passion for basketball and his dream of getting drafted into the NBA is emblematic of another hurdle that the program faced. Robinson, who is black and a former school athlete himself, notes that many of the young men have similar notions. “They feel they can all play basketball. That’s what they focus on,” Robinson says. “When basketball season came around, and they couldn’t try out because of their grades, that was a reality check. They all started to sit back and think.”

Now, after participating in the program, Zach has a different mindset. When he talks about his future, Zach says “education is key” and he has a backup plan to do “something in engineering. I like to build things.”

Robinson, Allen and Pietrzak all say they and other teachers saw improvements in the grades and attitudes of students who attended the Academy.  But one goal that did not materialize was substantial parent involvement.

Robinson spent after-school hours calling parents, inviting them to Academy events.  But last fall, after an article in a local newspaper seemed to imply the Academy was for students who get into trouble, parents called to complain, and some took their sons out of the program, saying they didn’t want their son involved in a program that labeled him negatively, Robinson says.

At the July 21 District 97 board meeting, Collins reviewed the pilot year and highlighted changes for the coming 2009-2010 school year. The program will limit the number of students it accepts in hopes of having a greater impact with the young men. Meetings will be held twice a week (to make it easier for students to attend regularly), and leaders will try to bring parents in earlier to lay out expectations, according to an end-of-year report, “Creating the Newest Model,” prepared for District 97 School Board members.

The program will be renamed The Brothers: Leadership Academy for Young Men, to reflect how the students see themselves. And the Academy will operate only at Brooks; Julian has other programs to benefit students, Pietrzak says.

(Overall, black students at Julian were more likely to meet or exceed standards on the ISAT reading test than black students at Brooks, according to the 2008 state report card.)
Dominican University in nearby River Forest will be brought in to serve as a partner to provide tutoring.

Collins, who is passionate about seeing the program succeed, says she will take a more active role with the Academy. This summer she met with the president of 100 Black Men, an organization committed to youth development, for help with expanding the program’s mentor base.

“We can’t just talk about the achievement gap and keep it in the background,” says Collins. “We have to be actively doing something about it. If we pilot something and we really believe in the reason for which it was started and we have not corrected it, there is still a need.”

Cassandra West is a freelance writer and former Chicago Tribune editor. She lives in Oak Park.