We all have moments in our lives that stick with us. Milton Brown has one: Milton can remember the first time he was told he was “bad.” He was a first grader.
“My teacher told me after I threw a chair that I was going to be like my dad in prison. I was always told I was a bad student, so I always believed it,” said Milton, now a graduate of Godwin Heights High School’s Class of 2020. “I had that glued in my mind.”
The reasons behind Milton’s reputation are undoubtedly complex, and require vastly more space than allowed here. But research on black children and disparities in discipline and on the “school to prison pipeline” paint a grim picture for young black men.
One thing is certain: things could have taken a very different turn for Milton.
By the time he came to Godwin Heights Public Schools in fifth grade, his behavior was on a downward spiral in school and at home. So if you’d told him then what his life would look like now, he wouldn’t have believed you: For the last two years, he’s pulled mostly A’s and a few B’s, participated in sports, mentored a freshman and got accepted to colleges.
Mike Porco is the assistant principal at Godwin Heights High School.
“I’ve been in education for awhile,” said Porco, “and Milton makes me maybe the most proud I’ve ever been of a student. What he’s done in four years is absolutely amazing.”
A Rough Start
Katie Hoffman, who was a teacher of Milton’s as a freshman, agrees. She said he was one of the toughest students she’d ever had in those early years. After one incident, she had to hold a parent meeting before he could return to her classroom.
“To say the least, he didn’t like me much,” Hoffman recalled.
Said Milton: “Coming into high school, I was always getting in trouble. I had an attitude problem, I was disrespectful. Freshman year, I got kicked out of the house and moved in with my granny. I saw my mom cry for the first time and realized I had to get it together.”
Porco spent a lot of time talking to Milton, who was invited to participate in the school’s restorative justice practices, which allow students an opportunity to repair harm rather than be suspended or expelled. Porco encouraged Milton to find a mentor, and he found one in Brad Whitby, a Godwin Heights graduate and coach at the Boys & Girls Club where Milton played basketball.
“At first, I didn’t want a mentor,” said Milton. “It made me feel stupid. But he became like my best friend. He was always motivating me. He told me I can be better.”
Milton eventually moved back home with his mom, stepdad and siblings who, he said, have always been supportive.
But it would be a while before he got it together. Sophomore year, Milton was joking around, pretending he had a weapon. This triggered a “code red” and resulted in his suspension. Whitby noticed Milton at the Boys & Girls Club more and asked him why. He sat with him for two hours, and got the full story.
Up to that point, Milton said, “I felt like nobody was really paying attention. I’d always get in trouble just to get noticed.”
Porco said he notices this with many students with behavior referrals: they just want to be heard. Whitby listened to Milton and, for the first time in a while, he was heard. Whitby kept listening, and Milton spent much of his suspension at the club (although Whitby revoked his basketball privileges for a few weeks).
“He was on me after that,” Milton recalled. “Once I realized I almost got expelled, I decided I really should turn this around. I didn’t get any more write-ups that year, except a few tardies.”
The summer after sophomore year, Milton got a job. That fall, as a junior, he made a goal: no write-ups for the whole semester.
“I did it. Then I didn’t get any more for the whole year. That was a big thing for me, because I’d been getting written up since kindergarten,” said Milton.
Hoffman said Milton grew up before her eyes: “He chose to focus on his academics, make more positive choices, and eventually became a student leader and role model for the underclassman.”
His grades improved, with all A’s and B’s junior year, all A’s and one B the first semester of senior year, and all A’s his final semester.
Porco thinks Milton’s incredible mind often drove the behaviors that landed in the office — he wanted to go at his own pace. “I never believed for one second that his grades reflected who he really was.”
Milton did all that while playing basketball and running track. Math is “by far” his favorite subject, he said, but he also likes science and is considering careers in medicine or forensic science.
Mentee to Mentor
No matter where his career leads, said Milton, “I want to be involved with students for the rest of my life.”
This academic year, he mentored a freshman.
“They said he was a mirror image of me as a freshman. My first time mentoring him, he was all over the place. We got his referrals down, his grades up.”
He was set to mentor another freshman when the coronavirus emerged. Despite the pandemic, Milton appreciates the time it has afforded him to reflect.
“I don’t like that I didn’t get to run track, go to prom, go to the lock-in, walk at graduation,” he said. “But it gave me time to see what I want to do in the future and think about colleges. It’s not the best situation, but I get time to process what’s going on and think about the future.”
He has acceptance letters from state universities, and is eyeing community colleges too. Wherever he goes, he’s going this fall, while he’s on a roll. But he’ll visit home, because he wants to mentor at the Boys & Girls Club, and his basketball coach asked him if he’d return to help out with the team.
“Milton has an energy about him that draws others to him and he has the power to make a difference in the lives of others,” Hoffman said.
Porco used to see Milton in the office often, and not for the best reasons. Now?
“I’m gonna miss him. There’s no replacing Milton.”