Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Value of a Black Man's Life

It goes without saying that one of RICH's goals is to instill in our young men the notion that their lives have value as much as anyone else's.  Everywhere they look, however, they see evidence to the contrary.  It didn't take the institutional downgrading of black men, via the non-prosecution of white police officers who kill unarmed black men and children, for the young men we work with to reach a conclusion of nihilism.  I am told the police in Washington, D.C., apparently have improved in their behavior and decision making, but every one of RICH's African American students, from the kid with the highest GPA right down to the one who commutes to work at all hours, has been stopped for indefinite amounts of time for no legal reason.

I'm not sure why the police find it difficult to distinguish between a man or boy who is walking from store to home or from home to school from a man who is standing on a street corner twelve hours a day, but they do.  Our students are used to the abuse and never file complaints when the "jump outs," as they are called, pop out of their unmarked vehicles to illegally search or detain our students.  It is part of our students' lives to receive such treatment.

Since I have lived in Ward 8, for three years, I have been pulled over more often than in my previous thirty-six years.  I imagine the police in Ward 8 are a little jumpy, or perhaps there is a "broken windows" policy, where if someone rolls through a stop sign right turn, the driver needs to be talked to.  When I was incarcerated for driving with an incorrectly suspended license, one of my students remarked afterwards, "You're officially a n_____ now."  As I mentioned in a previous post, the police can be callous, not caring how injured several citizens were in a shooting, and not worried about telling me they don't care.

What can RICH do?  We need to hold our students to high standards, to push them to college, and when they get there, to push them to their highest limit of achievement.  To those not attending college, we need to be able to help them plan a future that does foresee employment, retirement, and Social Security, which another of our students says has "no meaning in the black community."

I just finished reading "The Blind Side," Michael Lewis's story of a gifted but neglected African American boy who is adopted into a wealthy family in Memphis.  This is a true story that is ten years old, and it should have received more notice when it was written and again when the Oscar-winning movie was produced.  The subject, Michael Oher, who has now played six lucrative years in the NFL without missing a game, would have lived a short life and one of destitution had not a family friend engineered his admission to a private "Christian" school when Michael was 15, despite Michael's utter lack of preparation and despite the school's genesis, post-Brown vs Board of Education, as an avenue for wealthy white kids to avoid going to school with blacks.

Have we made any progress since Michael Oher was growing up?  The city of Memphis stopped tracking him when he was ten years old.  I know of at least two sixteen year olds who do not attend school who have equally been essentially ignored by city agencies.  One hangs out and "traps" near the intersection of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X Avenues.  The other is simply off the grid, with an address where no one answers the door.

I asked one of our once truant but now-reformed Anacostia students, who is applying for college, what he believed in.  Did he believe in his future?  Did he believe in our society to treat him well?  Did he believe he could be successful?  Did he believe in himself?  All were in doubt.

On the other hand, sometimes it just takes a semester of college to produce the look and feeling of pride that allows our young men, who have been through so much, to think, "Yeah, I do have a future."  One of our students came home last week and liked the fact his school had so many connections with the outside world.  He was looking forward to making some of those connections.  That was nice to hear.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

"Why Don't You Go Back Across the River"

Most of us at RICH don't mind getting criticized.  But when adults make judgments and decisions that hurt kids because the adults need to protect themselves or their egos, that's just sad.  The above words were uttered by the Executive Director of an organization who was incensed because RICH had found colleges for three of our students that differed from the recommendations from his organization.  In all three cases, the students chose the colleges RICH recommended, colleges that were more challenging but which we are confident the kids can succeed in.  I had said I had been working with kids for thirty-five years, eleven years on "this side [East] of the river," where the highest concentration of low-income kids live.  Two of the kids we had worked with for four years, and one for two years.  They all either live or hang out within a few blocks of my house in Anacostia; it is easy for us to know these kids quite well.

Fortunately, I don't think there is anywhere near the animus or pettiness among the staff at Anacostia High School.  The new, interim principal, who asked us not to return to the school this year, probably wanted control of his building, and the presence of our tutors and mentors probably threatened that control.  The expertise of our staff can be intimidating to a new principal.  Hopefully the data and outcomes we have amassed over the four years there will eventually convince school administrators to allow us to come back and continue our work there.  If not, RICH and the District of Columbia Public Schools central office, which has told us they would like us to work in "as many schools as possible," will work hard to find a good place or places for RICH to work during the day.

The rewarding news for RICH is that 100% of the students we have reached out to this fall want to keep working with us.  None of the students or parents (or teachers, for that matter) can understand RICH's not continuing at the school.  Thanks to the good folks at the St. Philip's Church, RICH has been able to continue its MATHlete, WordSTARS, and College Prep programs, and tutor or monitor most of the students we worked with last year at the school (the Keep Up and Village Watch programs).

RICH never fully recognized Dr. Ian Roberts, who was lead principal during our four years at Anacostia.  Dr. Roberts allowed our tutors and mentors unprecedented access to classes, meetings, and student data.  As a result, RICH's impact for the students there was tremendous.  We may never be able to repeat the four years of work we did at Anacostia, but we will try.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

"It's Kind of Surreal"

Travis and I had just gotten into the car for the drive back from Greensboro after his day and a half orientation at North Carolina A&T when he uttered those words regarding his going to college.  He doesn't know anyone in his neighborhood, known as "Lench Mob," who are going to or who have graduated from college.  He is a first generation college attendee, as are D and W, MATHletes all, whom RICH has been working with since freshman year of high school.  Travis is excited but nervous, D is jumping out of his skin to start at Morehouse College, and W is incredibly nervous as he approaches the day I leave him at South Carolina State.

It has been an amazing journey for these three scholars.  They have endured abuse, neglect, and loss throughout their childhoods.  Their teachers at Anacostia High School and members of the RICH staff are some of the steadiest adults in their lives.  It will be an awesome experience to help deliver them all of them to their respective campuses.

Historically, 3% of Anacostia students have finished college.  Since the terrific Achievers Program has started, that number has jumped to about 15%.  RICH is committing resources to help Travis, W, and D finish college, as well as many others.  As RICH's community ages, we need to make sure we don't say good-bye to them at high school graduation.

One of our first scholars, a boy who attended Maya Angelou and then Virginia Tech, has invited me to his wedding in the fall down South.  Seeing him achieve another milestone in his life will give me the opportunity to visit the three MATHletes who are beginning the achievement of their next milestone.  As our staff repeatedly tells me, many of whom have taught in many schools and school settings, "This is the most rewarding work we have ever done."

Friday, June 6, 2014

The First MATHlete to Die

On a recent Monday night, an ex-student of mine was shot to death a few blocks from my house on Howard Road.  One of our star MATHletes, the one without eyeglasses for four years, was finishing his homework and, upon leaving my house, heard the shots.  Hearing shots in my neighborhood is not unusual, and they often don't hit their mark, so we didn't think much of it at the time.

The next morning, however, the news spread that A was dead.  He was one of the original MATHletes from 2010-11, a boy who appreciated the weekly lunchtime pizza and math puzzles.  His school attendance wavered as he got older, though, and he eventually developed some other habits that he was not proud of.  He eventually received his high school diploma in jail.  Even so, many of the dedicated teachers at Anacostia High School kept in touch with him and mourned terribly when they learned he died.

I would see A occasionally after he got out, and he was clearly struggling.  I set him up with an appointment with our career counseling expert, but he did not show up and did not respond to phone calls or texts afterward.  I worried about him.  A week after he died, a classmate told me A had been shooting at folks.  So I guess this was targeted retribution.  Even so, it doesn't make it any easier to digest.

Three hours after I found out A died, one of our other star MATHletes, D, got a letter delivered to my house saying he was accepted to Morehouse College, one of the top historically black colleges in the country.  (D was using my address because he had to move out of a terribly dangerous neighborhood recently.)  I went from depression to ecstasy, knowing that D, who had overcome so much adversity to maintain the number one GPA of any male in his class, could walk in the footsteps of Martin Luther King and enjoy an outstanding college education on his way to a successful career.  I got to tell several of D's teachers, who all found D to give him hugs.

I saw D later that night to go over the day.  We looked at each other somberly and realized A was the first MATHlete to die.  D might not appreciate himself now, but considering all the land mines and temptations that our young people face, D should be extremely proud of himself.  The last line of Morehouse's acceptance said, "I congratulate you on your accomplishments!"  I couldn't agree more.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Why We Don't "Stay in Our Lane"

One of our students, a gifted athlete, received a full scholarship to a college in North Carolina with a 14% graduation rate.  He became our student because he was not yet reading at a functional reading level.  Like hundreds of students in Washington, D.C. each year, he graduated from eighth grade reading at the second grade level or lower.

His tutor, Juanita Irving, has not had a lot of time to work with him.  He was not on her regular list of students, members of the class of 2016 with reading challenges.  But he was recommended to her for help by his teachers.

His college acceptance was trumpeted by some at his school as a great achievement.  We wish the student all the best, but when I started to ask about his placement at a college with a dubious reputation, I was told to "stay in my lane."

Fortunately, the student's case manager, an incredibly dedicated teacher, has been in contact with the special education department at the college and pledges to continue that communication.  This teacher is confident the student will be successful both as a student and an athlete at this college.

RICH's founding was a prototype of changing lanes.  In the spring of 2003 I was tutoring for profit, serving families who could afford weekly (or more) tutoring at $90/session.  That summer, I moved out of my lane, founding an organization that will not hesitate to help low-income students succeed in any way we can.  This has meant getting eyeglasses to a student who has needed them for years, helping students read, or helping students find the right college or career placement.  Our interventions in our students' lives has meant stepping on toes occasionally when the other adults in a child's life have their own interests or agenda that do not exactly coincide with our students' best interests.

Our partners do ask us to provide more and more services, as demonstrated by the Chavez Schools' earmarking $100,000 for our programs this year.  We have turned down three other schools who would like our services.  The need in Wards 7 and 8 are nearly endless, and we are glad to be there even if we don't always stay in our lane.