Gwinnett mentors young black male students

School system plans to pilot an expansion to female students

Rose Kelley, a mother of four from Snellville, wasn’t sure what to do when youngest son Charles started falling behind in school.

Charles would go through periods of withdrawal, bouts of anger and spells when he wouldn’t focus on his schoolwork, Kelley said.

“In two years, he made a 180-degree turn,” she said. “He only missed two days (of school) last year, and his grades are up there and where they belong. It’s been a miracle.”

Kelley credits her son’s transformation to a mentoring program started by the Gwinnett County Public School System.

The program launched in 2009 to help improve the academic prospects of young black males, and it adds a pilot for the upcoming year for troubled black female students.

Charles loves the program and will be paired with a mentor again this fall as he starts ninth grade, his mother said.

“He needed that male figure and encouragement,” she said.

To date, the school system has trained 175 men to serve as volunteer mentors, largely to middle school boys whose poor attendance and behavior are hindering their success and chances of graduating, said James Rayford, director of the school system’s Department of Academic Support.

The academic struggles of young black men have been well-documented. In 2010, three high-profile national research studies found that less than half of black male students graduate from high school in four years. Black male students are three times more likely than their white peers to be suspended or expelled, according to the studies.

In the most recent school year, Gwinnett had about 165,000 students, 30.5 percent of whom were black, 29.4 percent of whom were white, 25.9 percent of whom were Hispanic and the rest were either Asian, American Indian or multiracial.

This past school year, 300 students participated in the mentoring program. Eighty percent of them brought home better grades in math, science, social studies and language arts than they did the previous year, a district analysis found.

Nineteen percent had perfect attendance for the year, and 34 percent had fewer than three absences.

Adults who sign up for the program make a one-year commitment, although 20 mentors have been with the program since its inception, Rayford said.

Mentors go to schools weekly to encourage the boys' academic success and to be their male role models and friends. Most of the boys come from single-parent homes and are recommended by their school's counselors, Rayford said.

The mentors, all of whom submit to criminal background checks, spent time outside of school with the students, attending ballgames, going to restaurants and museums and just hanging out, Rayford said.

Students, their mentors and parents also attend workshops on topics from dressing and writing for success to understanding the law and finding the right career fit.

Donna Cole, Keverne Hendrickson and three others were in Lawrenceville on a recent Thursday night for a mentor orientation.

“I just have a heart for kids,” Cole said, when asked by Rayford about her interest in the program.

She signed up, hoping to be able to mentor a female student in need.

“I think there has to be positive role models for young kids today or our problems are going to grow as these kids get older,” said Cole, who now has a job at North Gwinnett High School.

Hendrickson, 33, of Duluth, also signed on, saying: “At the end of the day, I just want to be able to impact one individual.”

Current mentors say both will find it a rewarding experience.

Don Shillington, a retired civil engineer from Duluth, took two Gwinnett County sixth-graders under his wing.

One had failed sixth grade twice and was in danger of being held back a third time when fate and the school system’s mentoring program put him and Shillington together. The other student had A’s, B’s and an attitude.

Shillington’s children are grown, and he saw mentoring as part of his Christian duty to give back.

Shillington, who is in his early 60s, said he wasn’t up to playing basketball or other sports with the students he’s mentored.

But he’s read and discussed books with them, tutored them and even memorized the Gettysburg Address with them.

“I’ve done things a dad would do with you if he had the time and the inclination,” Shillington said.