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African-American Male Mentors Read to Kentwood Students, Show Them Possibilities

For African-American male community leaders who visit Kentwood elementary schools to read to students, the hour they devote each week is about much more than sharing a story.

Along with encouraging pupils to become good readers, it’s about connecting through life lessons, giving advice and building relationships.

“We are trying to be positive role models, to let students know they can be professionals,” said mentor Omar Bakri, Crestwood Middle School principal, following a reading session with Bowen Elementary School students. “Everybody in fifth grade has dreams to be something special. Through a quality education, the likelihood of achieving those goals and dreams is more likely.”

Bakri is one of 20 mentors serving as guest readers for Kentwood Public Schools’ Be the Dream Initiative. The program was started last year in response to data suggesting an achievement gap in reading among African-American male students.

Mentors aim to boost reading proficiency levels while getting into conversations about many subjects. Bakri is jumpstarting relationships with students, many who will attend Crestwood next year.Fifth-grader Eric Gordon raises his hand to discuss a book about baseball player Satchel Paige with mentor Gary Harmon, Pinewood Middle School principal

Powerful Examples

Last year, the initiative was piloted in 27 kindergarten through fifth-grade classrooms with 16 mentors at Bowen and Meadowlawn elementary schools. This year, 20 mentors volunteer in 34 classrooms at Bowen, Meadowlawn, Endeavor and Challenger schools. Mentors stay with the same groups of students, reading and discussing stories and the lessons embedded in the tales.

Mentors include area business leaders, Kentwood administrators, college students and pastors.

“This initiative highlights the need to not only meet the academic needs of students, but it also illuminates how students appreciate the positive reinforcements they receive from caring adults,” said Sheree Joseph-Bos, program coordinator. “By interacting with the African-American/ male mentors, students can revere them as role models.”

Joseph-Bos said students look forward to the specialized attention they’re receiving from mentors, and often eagerly await their arrival.

“Our African-American male mentors are a positive, powerful force in the lives of all of our students. In return, it’s my opinion that our mentors are equally inspired by the students and they also feel a greater sense of altruism.”

According to last year’s data, about 97 percent of students rated their reading experience with a mentor as positive, and 85 percent felt they gained more confidence as a reader.

Mentor Gary Harmon, Pinewood Middle School principal, reads to Bowen Elementary School studentsMentor Gary Harmon, Pinewood Middle School principal, recently read a book about legendary African-American pitcher Satchel Paige to a Bowen Elementary fifth-grade class. Students then discussed the accomplishments of African-American athletes like Paige and Jackie Robinson.

Harmon said he likes to emphasize that being a good reader helps students be successful in school and jobs.

“It gives students an opportunity to see males who read. It’s important to see males who not only read, but who enjoy reading,” Harmon said. “This is good for all our kids.”

Fifth-grade student Lance Brown said he has liked getting to know Harmon. “He teaches us what middle school will be like and not to be afraid,” Lance said.

Fifth-grader Eric Gordon agreed. “He’s giving us a head start in what’s going to happen and teaching us life lessons.”

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Kentwood Public Schools

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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