Delicious-smelling bags of Popeyes chicken lie within reach of seven boys at lunch time. But before they dig in, Robert Hurd has a few things to ask them.
“Any April suspensions?” he asks the third- through seventh-grade students gathered around the table. Nope, they answer. “No conduct reports?” Nope. That’s good, Hurd says, adding, “You guys can do it. I strongly, strongly believe in you.”
“Did I ever tell you being a strong-willed person was bad? No,” Hurd tells the students of Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Academy. “Strength is good, guys. It’s good to know who you are and feel strongly about what you believe in. But you’ve got to know how to direct it. You’ve got to be able to use that strength correctly.”
But then he zeroes in on one boy who, despite pulling good grades, draws teacher complaints about his behavior and attitude. Hurd looms over the group, all 6-feet-8-inches of him, and delivers a message as strongly as he once pulled down rebounds in college.
“If you do that, guys, you’re going to do well.”
Only then comes the takeout.
Hurd’s heart-to-heart at MLK Academy is one of many going on in Grand Rapids Public Schools between young African-American males and their adult community counterparts. It’s all part of Grade School to Grad School, an initiative to provide black male students with support and confidence to help them do well in school and life.
Now completing its second academic year, the program pairs some 130 students with about 80 men, who agree to spend an hour per week through the school year with them. It focuses on students at Ottawa Hills High School and the elementary and middle schools that feed into it, with the intent to follow them all the way to graduate school.
Growing Future Fathers and Leaders
G2G, as it’s commonly called, aims to avert the problems experienced by poorly educated men and foster successful futures by creating “an intentional shift in the way we engage African-American young men,” says program coordinator Emmanuel Armstrong III.
“We want these young men to grow to be fathers, to be husbands and to give back to the young men in the community,” says Armstrong, counselor coordinator of the GRPS Office of Parental Engagement.
“Our mission is to create the next generation of global leaders. We want the young men to rise above the situation they are in and understand the greatness that is waiting for them.”
He works with a planning committee that includes Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal, other current and former GRPS officials, and representatives of Grand Rapids Community College, Grand Valley State University and the Grand Rapids Urban League. They provide professional development for the community mentors and set up field trips to museums and other activities.
In March, they held an African-American Male Achievement Conference that attracted about 300 ninth-graders and 100 men from the community, who will pair up with students over the summer.
Programs for particular student groups don’t always run smoothly. Wyoming Junior High and Intermediate schools offered leadership clubs for African-American girls for four years to address discipline issues and lack of involvement. Advised by two school counselors, also African-American females, girls met for outings and volunteer events, to talk about issues in their lives and to track attendance and grades.
The school saw discipline referrals drop from 31 involving African-American girls in 2012-2013 to just five referrals among that population a year later. But it was dropped in the spring when a parent’s objection that the group should be open to all students caused the district to re-think its policy at the same time one of the group’s leaders retired.
In Grand Rapids, however, G2G is being extended next fall to provide mentors to female students of all races and ethnicities, not just African-Americans. But the program for males remains focused on black students because, Armstrong says, “Our research led us to the African-American male community first, because we saw that’s where the need was.”
Despite rising graduation rates among all black students in GRPS, too many male students are not graduating on time or dropping out, he said. Studies show those who don’t receive diplomas will face “some real dire struggles in their life,” he says. “It doesn’t mean you’ll have a life of crime, but it means you’ll struggle a little more than someone with a diploma.”
High school graduates generally live longer, earn more and are less likely to commit crimes than those who drop out, according to a background paper on the G2G program.
The paper also noted African-American males were suspended at twice the rate of all GRPS students in 2012-13 and were more often chronically absent, with higher absenteeism correlating to lower achievement.
Hurd sees a special struggle for young black males who see little positive reflection of themselves in their curriculum, textbooks or teaching staffs.
Some perceive school as “a celebration of someone else’s culture” and easily doubt they can contribute meaningfully to society, he says. “I try to attack that mindset to let them know everybody can be successful.”
The intent is for mentors like him to walk alongside their students throughout school into early adulthood, sharing insights they’ve gleaned as engineers, educators and other professionals. Armstrong himself meets with students at C.A. Frost and Alger Middle School, going over their grades and personal issues.
While research shows black men commonly believe that others perceive them as having “deficits, not assets,” mentors tell them they are “born brilliant,” he says.
“Once you instill that confidence and self-assurance in students, they can become a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. They can go on to own their own mechanic shop.”
Mentor Overcame Own Struggles
Robert Hurd tries to build up that confidence in the boys he meets with – as well as their grades.
“I want them to leave here knowing they can be difference-makers, not just in their own lives, but in the lives of other people,” he says.
Hurd contended with some deficit perceptions of his own growing up in Jackson. His father was absent and his mother left him in the care of his grandparents when she moved to Detroit. Christmases were meager and he wore second-hand clothes. A high school counselor told him no college would accept him.
But after three teachers challenged him to do better, his E’s turned into A’s, and a church member told him about Pell Grants. That helped him get into Jackson Community College and later transfer to Grand Valley State University.
Meanwhile, his height shot up and he became a standout power forward at GVSU, leading the basketball team in rebounds in 1970-71.
He graduated in 1972 with a teaching degree and went on to a long career in education. He was assistant principal at Ottawa Hills and East Kentwood high schools, principal of the former Henry Elementary School and director of Upward Bound for GRCC. He retired in 2006 but substitutes for GRPS principals.
“I tell kids, ‘I didn’t become a genius, I just started trying,’” says Hurd, 65, who shares with them object lessons of his upbringing. “When I look at those kids, I was just like them. If I made it, the way I look at it, they can too. They’ve just got to have somebody who believes and somebody who pushes them.”
Each One Unique
Hurd does a little of both in a recent get-together with the boys at MLK Academy. While firmly pushing them to get their homework in on time, he talks them up as potential role models of success.
“I want you to recognize how special you are,” Hurd tells them. “All of you guys are unique. You’re God’s special gift to the world.”
To reinforce the point, he has them sort through cards of pictures and messages about leadership, and choose one to share with their families. Dexter Cox’s card shows a group of lions with the message, “Surround yourself with people on the same mission as you.”
“I picked this one because that’s what I should do,” the seventh-grader says. “Sometimes I don’t surround myself with the right people.”
Afterwards, Dexter says Hurd motivates him to do that and more.
“He does great things for us,” he says. “He explains that we can’t have a real bad attitude. We’ve got to get good grades, go to a good college and hang out with the right people.”
Emmanuel Alvarez agrees, saying Hurd helps them “become men and become successful in life.”
Hurd wraps up the session by giving them pens and pencils, and tells them he’ll take them bowling the next day. “I hate to say it,” he teases them as they leave, “but I’m going to beat everybody.”