Homework was never a priority for Bryan Smith before this year. The 13-year-old Curtis Junior High School student would go straight home after school and play video games. His grade-point average hovered around 1.8.
It wasn’t that Bryan lacked the smarts or support at home. His parents, Sylvester and Leslie, have always been quick to give him a loving earful if he steps too far out of line.
But good grades weren’t coming easy, and he was barely getting by in math and science.
“I was focused on other stuff, but it was still important to me,” Bryan said of school.
As a black youth, he’s part of the racial group that lags further than any in the University Place School District, according to state test scores, although black students in UP perform well compared to those in other area school districts.
Bryan’s trajectory changed this year, when a dozen or so black juniors and seniors from Curtis High started spending time with him and half a dozen other black boys.
They helped Bryan with his homework. They warned what high school and the real world would be like, seeing that they were in his shoes just two or three years ago.
The group of mentors – known as the MAC Scholars – is part of UP’s expanding initiative to reach struggling black boys.
Other local school districts offer programs to reach minority and at-risk students. But none has gone after a narrowly targeted group with more gusto than UP.
Lower-income, urban districts in Tacoma and Lakewood say they can’t afford to shower so much attention on black boys.
“In our case, we don’t have just one group struggling,” said Kim Prentice, spokeswoman for Clover Park Schools.
Her district, for example, had six schools that failed to make adequate yearly progress under federal standards in both 2006 and 2007; University Place had none.
UP school leaders say it’s black boys, not girls, who need the most help, though they didn’t analyze individual test scores or grades to reach this conclusion.
The district mostly looked at national research that shows that black males are more likely than any other minority group to be unemployed, make less money and run into other problems if they don’t succeed in school.
Programs that single out black boys have drawn criticism from some who call it racist. But UP Superintendent Patti Banks said the demographic numbers are persuasive.
“Statistically, there is no more of an at-risk population than African American males,” Banks said. “Their increasing sense of isolation and detachment from school happens early on.
“What we did was ask, ‘What can we do to intervene before that detachment?’”
The question continued to gnaw at district officials in 2006 when a star black basketball player left the district to straighten himself out academically.
UP’s black students actually measure up well when compared to peers around the South Sound.
They score better on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning than black students in larger urban districts. They made adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law.
Only when they’re compared to the high-performing UP student body as a whole does a significant achievement gap emerge.
To close that gap, the district this year is spending about $45,000, mostly on teacher stipends, on programs aimed at black males.
In addition to the MAC Scholars, the district hired its former football coach to mentor black male athletes, and launched a program in which volunteer educators guide six boys through grade school.
UP says its efforts might not yield dramatic improvements overnight, but some students have seen a difference already.
After one semester of his working with the MAC Scholars, Bryan Smith’s grade point average climbed to 2.3. He still struggles in science, but he got an A in math. That includes scoring a 98 percent on his pre-algebra final last semester, the highest of any eighth-grader in his class.
“It helped. Those guys saying stuff encouraged me to get better grades,” he said. “Now I like school.”
His mom says her son is like other boys – all he needed was a little extra push from his peers.
“Nowadays, everybody needs something to encourage them,” Leslie Smith said.
A LARGE MINORITY
University Place is one of Pierce County’s more affluent suburbs. The upscale residential areas and million-dollar Puget Sound views fit a suburb that will host a U.S. Open golf championship in 2015.
It doesn’t face the socio-economic problems seen in larger, more urban areas. Most of its 31,000 residents are white – about 75 percent, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.
Also woven into the city’s fabric is a strong community of blacks. They made up about 9 percent of the population at the last Census; some Web sites put the figure as high as 12 percent today.
Blacks have an even bigger presence in UP schools – more than 15 percent of the student body. Officials don’t know if the disparity means the city’s black residents are disproportionately young, or if black families who live in Tacoma and elsewhere have transferred their kids into UP classrooms. The district doesn’t track transfers by race.
Regardless, blacks are the largest minority group in the school district. It has the third-largest proportion of black students in Pierce County, behind Tacoma and Lakewood.
University Place is part of a wave of suburban American schools that have tried to lift the academic level of various demographic groups since the passage of No Child Left Behind, which was signed into law in 2002.
Improving the lot of black males has proved especially popular, from Seattle to Cleveland to Westchester County, N.Y.
Suddenly armed with data they’re required to keep, schools have tried, with varying success, everything from one-on-one tutoring to creating schools that admit only black boys.
Henry Levin, a professor at Columbia University in New York, helped write a study last year that found that for every $1 the public invests in programs that help black males graduate high school, it saves $2 to $4, mostly in public health and criminal justice costs.
“There are things that work that by far exceed the cost of investing in programs that support African American males, even though the costs are not cheap,” Levin said.
But Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, argues that such efforts are a form of racial segregation and reinforce stereotypes about black males. They also don’t take into account that black girls might struggle, too, he says.
Meyers said UP is part of a fad among suburban school districts.
“They’re not taking black students as individuals,” he said. “They’re taking race and gender as proxies for segregation.”
School leaders say their responsibility is to ensure that every student is prepared for life after public school, including college, and that the same academic standards should apply to all students.
They say disparities in test scores, research and the first-hand experiences of educators gave them a place to start: black males.
Their efforts to close the achievement gap began about four years ago, when a 10-person planning team from Curtis High started discussing it.
French teacher Dionne Curren had a strong interest. In 2006, she attended a conference on race and pedagogy at the University of Puget Sound, where she got the idea for a program built around black mentors.
The idea eventually would produce the centerpiece of UP’s initiative.
‘WE MAKE THINGS HAPPEN’
The 10 or so MAC Scholars exchange salutations and shake hands, a ritual that signals their meeting has started.
An older boy reads aloud a passage from “Letters to a Young Brother,” an inspirational book about challenges facing today’s African American males:
“‘There are three kinds of people: Those who make things happen; those who wait for things to happen; and those who sit and wonder what happened. We make things happen. We’re not just trying to do life, we’re going to do it.’”
After listening to the words, the teenage boys break into smaller groups to discuss the book.
“To me, it means taking control of your life,” Antonio Caldwell, 17, says to the younger members. “As much as we tell you, ‘You have to raise your grades,’ it’s not going to happen unless you do it.”
Two years ago Antonio was kicked out of school for bringing a knife. Today, he’s a MAC Scholar with a nearly 3.7 GPA.
The program relies on one of the most influential factors of adolescence – peer pressure. It’s modeled on a program begun in the early 1990s in Shaker Heights, Ohio, an affluent suburb of Cleveland.
The older mentors aren’t tutors; they’re more like big brothers. Some play sports, others do well in class, others are just popular at school. Their goal is to get younger peers to start believing in themselves through motivation, first-hand experience and tough love.
“The power of having someone near your age, having someone who looks like you, breaking down the stereotypes, that’s where the power’s at,” Curren said.
But the teacher said the program’s first year in 2006-07 was “a learning experience.”
The group had between 15 and 20 Curtis High students. Upperclassmen mentored underclassmen. Weekly attendance was erratic.
This year, the MAC Scholars work with kids at the junior high. Instead of Curren dedicating one period a day like last year, she does program work after school. The district pays her a $300 stipend monthly.
Anthony Corley, an 18-year-old senior and one of the original mentors, said the switch to junior high helped. He said the younger kids aren’t as stubborn and are willing to listen.
Added Mike Smith, a 17-year-old junior at Curtis High who is not related to Bryan: “We’ve been in the situation they’ve been in, especially the stereotypes they face.”
Curren says she’s seen mixed results. Some younger students’ grades have improved since the start of this year; others haven’t.
A more accurate indicator of success is behavior and confidence, she said. One student, whom she didn’t name, was sent to the principal’s office almost 20 times for disciplinary reasons last year. He’s been sent only a few times this year.
Superintendent Banks and other UP officials say the program can work anywhere, but that it needs committed educators.
And teachers don’t have to be black. Curren is white, stands less than 5 feet tall and literally looks up to most of the MAC Scholars. The group cooperates with her just fine.
Outsiders are taking notice.
Tom Hilyard is a member of the Black Collective, an advocacy group for African American students working to close the achievement gap in Tacoma schools and influence the search for a school superintendent. He said Curren’s dedication to the innovative mentoring program is a big reason it’s successful.
“That kind of courage is wonderful,” said Hilyard, the group’s education chairman.
The MAC Scholars program helped convince UP to expand its outreach to black males.
One of the obvious areas of need was athletics. Deputy superintendent Terry Pullen recalled that when he’d attend football and basketball games and count “too many” Curtis athletes who struggled in class.
In November 2006, the academic problems of the high school’s most highly touted athlete shined a light on the problem. Isaiah Thomas, a phenom who was a lock to play basketball for the University of Washington, transferred to a Connecticut prep school to get his grades in order for college.
Banks and Pullen both say the district’s recent efforts weren’t a direct response to Thomas, who will attend UW next fall.
But the star player is a perfect example of what needed improvement, they say.
“We were moving in the direction before, but it was easy to put a face to the problem with someone like Isaiah,” Banks said.
Keith Thomas, Isaiah’s father, declined to comment about his son’s experience in UP, saying only: “He’s doing great.”
This year, UP turned to another familiar face to guide athletes off the field.
Bob Lucey coached football at Curtis for more than three decades and won four state titles before retiring in 2006. The district rehired the 59-year-old to mentor African American athletes at the high school and junior high this year.
“Anytime you get a lot of attention as an athlete, at any place, you’re put on a pedestal,” Lucey said. “With kids getting all this attention, it’s important to help them sit down and talk about their priorities, and talk about down the road.”
Every week, he meets one-on-one with between 30 and 50 athletes – from football players to swimmers – to check their grades and guide their lives after sports.
The district pays Lucey, who is white, a stipend of about $30,000 annually, although officials say he does the work of a full-timer. He’s also started mentoring some female athletes.
He’s taken some of the students on tours of colleges and technical schools. He gives advice, anecdotes from his coaching days, a pep talk – anything that might help them excel.
The former coach works with Deborah Walker’s nephew, Katief Edwards, a ninth-grader who plays football. Walker said that when the relationship started, Katief was failing all six classes.
His first report card this year showed him failing two. The goal next semester is to pass them all.
“It feels good,” Walker said. “It’s really good to have that kind of relationship with Bob Lucey. It’s not just about football.”
Three black educators from UP took it upon themselves last year to help close the achievement gap at its most formative stage.
Teacher Betty Gray, psychologist Deanna Sanders and counselor Sophia Williams, all then at Sunset Primary, realized that some of the K-4 school’s black boys were struggling. Williams now works at University Place Primary.
They proposed a plan to help two third-graders with mentoring and monitoring. The program eventually would be called At Promise.
Each of the three women volunteered to meet with the boys at least weekly. They would encourage them, ask how things were faring at home and get progress reports from teachers.
“It takes more than one person to make sure these kids are doing the right things,” said Gray, the district’s first black teacher, who has taught almost 35 years in UP. “They need that extra shot of encouragement to let them know someone’s in their corner.”
Kurt Hatch took a personal interest when he was named school principal last year. The UP native and Curtis High grad is black. One thing he likes about At Promise is how it transforms kids who never had an interest in academic achievement. Some youth perceive this kind of success as uncool, he says.
“There are stereotypes that even if they’re not conscious of it, they have to weave their way through that,” he said.
This year, the program has expanded to six boys, including the original two. The district wouldn’t identify the boys because it doesn’t want them labeled as participants in a special program. The district tells families their children are receiving extra encouragement.
The educators say the original pair have shown tremendous improvement. Hatch said they’ve raised their grades this year, participate in class and are better behaved with classmates.
One boy said he wanted to become a gang member before. Now, he’s a helper in the library.
“In all areas, I’m so pleased,” Hatch said. “It’s working.”
Brent Champaco: 253-597-8653