A London program teaches inner-city kids reading, writing, and reformation
The From Boyhood to Manhood Foundation takes in dropouts and delinquents that other schools can't reach, but now faces a crisis of its own – no funding.
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Still, the atmosphere is sometimes edgy. The pupils are given far more leeway than they would in conventional school, and the atmosphere borders on chaotic until they settle in to a morning routine of meditation, breakfast, and academics. During interviews, Seshmi always keeps one eye on the group, reminding pupils of their responsibilities, preempting trouble before it starts.Skip to next paragraph
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The approach is soft but firm. At one point Seshmi is confronted by a willful youth who keeps moving his desk backward. "If you move it one inch more, I'll move you and the table right over there," he says softly, pointing to the vacant front of the room.
The balance of discipline and support has earned the center widespread plaudits. The national education agency, Ofsted, praised FBMF as a "good school with some outstanding features." It said pupils did well at personal development, "particularly in attendance and behaviour because provision for their spiritual, moral, social, and cultural development is outstanding."
The foundation excels at getting former pupils to return as mentors. Freddie Caven came to FBMF at age 13 after he was kicked out of school for "misbehaving." Now, six years later, he's studying information technology in college – and often returns to talk to the kids. "It changed my whole attitude towards people," he says. "I didn't really listen to people before."
Other mentors provide powerful evidence of the center's success. Jacob Lewis transformed himself from a self-confessed "gangsta-man" into a budding playwright whose work has been produced at London's Royal Court Theatre. Edmond Poru went from being a school outcast at 15 to a successful student, eager to go to college.
Though he didn't attend the school himself, Dapo Soyemi, who became enmeshed in gangs and gunplay as a youth, believes it's crucial for the kids to have a black role model, too. "You need someone to look up to, a role model who isn't a footballer or a rapper, someone who goes through school, college, university, and becomes a success," says Mr. Soyemi, a social worker.
He sees the closure of FBMF as particularly devastating to the class of 2007. Though Seshmi promises to continue one-on-one sessions whenever he can, Soyemi believes many will revert to criminal activity. "There is so much peer pressure," he says. "It's very difficult to avoid."
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The crux of the problem is that FBMF has been a victim of its own success. When children started flocking to its programs, not all brought state funding with them. Those referred by their schools generally did, but the increasing number who enrolled on their own after having fallen out of the system came with no public money.
Seshmi says it costs around £2,000 per month ($4,057) for every boy in the program. The costs have mounted. He estimates the school owes £30,000 ($60,870) in taxes alone.
Some backers, meanwhile, complain that the foundation does not document its activities and achievements properly. "Because we are dealing with young people, it's difficult to find the time to do paperwork," Seshmi concedes.
Officials express regret at the cash crisis but note that funding is a perennial problem for small, volunteer-based groups. Southwark Council's chief executive, Annie Shepperd, says the foundation is "highly regarded" and that the council, which already contributes £200,000 ($405,800) a year, will consider more support.
"We do not want to see From Boyhood to Manhood forced to close as the work they do is too important," says another council official.
As for the central government, a spokesman says that it recognizes the "vital role" that groups like FBMF play and notes that a new task force had been set up to help local services.
For the kids at FBMF, no amount of help could come too soon. "I love this place," says Dushane, 13. "We're like a family here."