Ohio scholars get taste of college

A ninth-grade class at the Martin Luther King Jr. magnet school in Cleveland typically has about 200 students, most of them African-American, half of them male. But by the time graduation rolls around four years later, the numbers have plummeted. This spring, just 10 boys graduated, along with about 30 girls.

Next spring, though, the prospects are good that the number of male graduates will more than double. Thanks to the Barbara Byrd-Bennett Scholars Program, set up by the former Cleveland school superintendent and Baldwin-Wallace College about 20 miles away in Berea, Ohio, a core group of young men have stayed on track and avoided the detours that lure away large numbers of their peers.

Director Ladonna Norris has watched over the education of 30 students since the summer before their freshman year. Nominated by teachers and counselors in middle school at MLK, the boys started off at every point on the spectrum in terms of grades. When they return this fall, they'll be the bulk of the males left in the senior class.

Over the years, they've met for after-school study sessions, Saturday test-prep, community service, family barbecues, and leadership activities. For several weeks in the summer they live at Baldwin-Wallace and continue to take classes. This year, some of the students had to attend the district's summer school instead, but 15 made it through a grueling five-week schedule at the college that included hundreds of pages of reading, not to mention a college physics class for credit.

Brandon Floyd says that before he joined the scholars program, "I really didn't think about my future at all. I just didn't have no guidance." The academic load this summer is "extremely hard," but he's coping. He hopes to become a broadcaster. (He and others in Cleveland spoke to the Monitor by phone.)

Ms. Norris, he says, "really took us under her wing." Norris has worn the hats of counselor and disciplinarian, mother-figure and mentor. She's rustled up funding so the students can get paid for internships. At the end of each summer, they celebrate with an educational trip – this time it will be to New York City.

Such caring and close attention emerged as key factors in a study of public schools where African-American males succeed, says Rosa Smith, president of the Schott Foundation for Public Education in Cambridge, Mass. "Relationships, the kind that generate in students a sense that you believe in them;... a high-level curriculum that would prepare a student to be successful in college;... [and] some structure and strictness ... that the student thinks is fair.... When these ingredients come together, the students will do well."

When the Cleveland students initially came to Baldwin-Wallace – for most, their first exposure to a college – the suburban setting was so quiet, some couldn't sleep, Norris says. And they had to adjust to higher standards held out for them by their professors and mentors.

"Out here, they expect nothing but the best, so we just gotta, like, step up our game ... and we realize ... we have much more knowledge than we thought we had," says Calvin Hulittle Jr. This summer one of the books he read was "The Good Time Gospel Boys" by Billy Bittinger. "It had a lot of irony and controversy in it, so I really liked it," he says.

"I really don't let my area affect me – there's, like, crime and drugs and everything, but ... I just don't let it get to me," he adds. Being in the scholars program makes it easier, "because you know you're not alone."

Five students have dropped out of the program – with four still attending various schools and one in the juvenile justice system, Norris says. Of the 25 remaining, all but one are on track to graduate next spring.

Roy Levy, a teacher who graduated recently from Baldwin-Wallace, is one of the African-American mentors who live on campus with them in the summer. "We spend a lot of time just teaching them how to be men," he says. "They have questions on ... what to do in certain situations, ... controlling their tempers.... Things that it takes a man to teach another man – like how to look at the big picture."

That's something that both their principal, and their parents – especially the single mothers – are grateful for. Katie Lavender, who works two jobs and is raising her son Deant'e on her own, says he's become more focused. "He's got a plan, even when he comes home for the weekend."

Ms. Lavender is also glad that the staff is walking them through college admissions and financial aid. Norris's goal is to help all the graduates get scholarships.

"My work ethic changed," Deant'e confirms. "I learned how to separate my time, when to play, when to work." He was always interested in college, he says, "but now I know it's definite."

At MLK, Principal Donald Jolly says, "they're known as 'the scholars,' and the younger students look up to them – they're modeling what we want in young men."

People like Norris are doing "God's work," Mr. Jolly adds. "She's saved 25 lives and 25 families with her support." It's not clear yet whether another group of scholars will be chosen once this set graduates, but Mr. Jolly hopes so. "These programs are what's needed – interactions and building connections with families, and being advocates for these children."

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