By John Hamlin
UNC Staff Writer
the Durham VOICE
The Saturday College Preparatory Academy, a program for black men in their junior years of high school, threw down the gauntlet at its second meeting Feb. 12.
The students watched and discussed “The Vanishing Black Male,” a documentary summarizing the challenges they face. “It was about how most of our men now are incarcerated — or just dead — and not in college. And, how we’re decreasing every year in college and increasing in prison,” said Pierre Booker, a 17-year-old Hillside High School student.
“As an African-American, people look down upon you in certain things,” Booker said. Although people might look up to an African-American because of their athletic ability, Booker said they still look down upon their academic level. “They say, ‘You can’t do this. You can’t do that.’”
The Saturday Academy is all about changing that, said Jim Johnson, co-director of the Minority Male Bridge to Success Project and director of the Urban Investment Strategies Center at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.
“It has to do with the deteriorating economic circumstance of African American males in our society, the deteriorating educational experiences and the need to build a better pipeline to higher education,” Johnson said. “That’s what this is all about: the next generation of African American male leaders, or minority male leaders, in the city of Durham and the state and nation.”
Each of the Saturday Academy’s 54 students found out in November 2010 that his high school, either Hillside or Southern, had selected him for the program. Following a Jan. 22 kickoff, the academy began its weekly, 9 a.m., meetings at Union Independent School on Feb. 5. Planning began about year ago, after University of North Carolina system won $700,000 W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant to better educate black males of all ages across the state, Johnson said.
While the Saturday Academy offers extensive tutoring, it also equips students with the non-academic skills needed to succeed once accepted into college. “They’re teaching us how to get into college and how, once you get into college, to not be affected by how much work you have, and to manage your time and money,” Booker said.
Research shows many Black males drop out of college, either because they have a bad experience or get bad grades, Johnson said. “Some of it is about making the adjustment to life away from home and how do you choose your friends and time management and all of those things. Practical things that nobody ever tells you, particularly when you’re in high school.”
Saturday Academy Director Michael Woods said they will experiment to identify the best ways to prepare young black men for college. “You can’t just say, ‘Okay, you all aren’t good at school so, here, come and study for three extra hours.’ If they were prone to do that already, they’d be good at school,” he said. “You have to meet folks where they are. You can’t just say, ‘here’s the mountaintop and you should be here, and shame on you for not being here.’”
The program is dedicated to affecting real change in the students’ lives, Woods said. “One of the things that is really going to distinguish this program from other programs is it’s not, ‘just throw something out there and hope it works and, kind of, shield yourself behind your good intentions,’ but really actually look and painstakingly evaluate what you are doing.”
For starters, the academy will employ cash incentives and peer pressure to pry the young men out of bed each Saturday. Instead of simply demanding attendance, Johnson said administrators will divide students into groups and give them money to lose. “Let’s just say, hypothetically, you’ve got $200 for the next six months and anytime someone is late or doesn’t show up on Saturday, your team loses $50,” he said. “That requires them to have a strategy to make sure that everybody’s there on time.”
Unlike similar programs, the Saturday Academy will develop methods that can be exported and adapted to other cities, Woods said. “You’ve got a whole lot of different people who are doing really great work, but a lot of it is on a charismatic model: it’s a single leader, it’s a single founder, it’s one person pushing that agenda,” he said.
Conversely, the Saturday Academy will use hard data to measure the effectiveness of its methods, Johnson said. Gathered internally and from Durham Public Schools, the data will let scholars to analyze and draw conclusions based on the students’ performance and improvement over time. “Our goal is to develop scalable models that you can expand and roll out in high schools and other kinds of institutions around the country,” Johnson said. “We want to follow these young men and see how well they do based on the kinds of interventions we are using in our program.”
Along the way, the Saturday Academy will take direction from the students themselves, Woods said. “The goal is to constantly, constantly keep improving with it, and to have the people in place to help us see where those blind-spots are, where those opportunities for improvement are. And those people aren’t just going to be scholars, those people are going to be students themselves.”
Empowering the students to adjust the program also teaches them independence and decision-making skills, Johnson said. “One of the big undergirding dimensions is that you want to give young men agency in controlling their own destinies. So you don’t walk in and tell them everything that they should be doing,” he said. “Rather, you want to engage them in the decision making process because when they get to college, you won’t be there to hold their hands.”
Halifax County may be next in line for a Saturday Academy, Johnson said. With funds from a $140,000 Golden LEAF Foundation grant and the cooperation of local community colleges, planning is already underway. Johnson said the Halifax County and Durham programs will collaborate and share innovations, discoveries and insights.
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