Mentoring program challenges black, Latino high school youths

NEW HAVEN–On a sunny Saturday morning, dozens of black and Latino teenage boys, dressed sharply in business suits, crowd into a college classroom, confident they are on a path to success that eludes many of their high school classmates.

For nearly five hours, they undergo drills on test-taking skills, public speaking, critical thinking – and even the proper placement of a dinner napkin.

Hoag, Stephen

Stephen Hoag teaches a Saturday class in the Developing Tomorrow’s Professionals program

Seated at rows of computers, they listen intently as a short, trim man with wire-rimmed glasses and reddish-brown hair delivers lessons in a fiery style that is part classroom professor, part Dale Carnegie.

“Those who fail to plan, plan to fail!” Stephen Hoag says as he paces among the young men. His voice rising like that of an old-time preacher, he encourages them to confront challenges. “How do I approach each day? How do I approach each moment?… If my attitude is fear and dread, it’s tough to get beyond that.”

“It is a mindset,” he says, “how we walk in victory.”

The Saturday classes, funded by a federal grant, operate under the direction of Hoag, a State Department of Education consultant who designed an unusual course that combines rigorous academics with a heavy dose of lessons on personal responsibility and social etiquette.

The academic boot camp, as Hoag describes it, targets young black and Latino males–groups that chronically lag far behind in academics and account for an alarming part of what educators call the achievement gap.

The program, known as Developing Tomorrow’s Professionals, has an impressive track record. Now in its fifth year, it has reached about 180 young men, sending them to colleges across the U.S., including top Ivy League schools and leading public universities.

The students work with mentors year-round, including 10 mandatory Saturday sessions at Southern Connecticut State University in the summer. Students who miss even one session are dropped from the program.

This year’s summer class includes 54 young men from a dozen high schools in New Haven, New Britain, Meriden, East Windsor, West Haven and Ansonia. Some have been good students. Others have a history of spotty grades or attendance.

“My freshman year my grades were good, but last year I slacked off,” said 16-year-old Rakeam Durant, who will be a junior at New Haven’s Wilbur Cross High School in the fall. Durant had a friend who went through the program. “I saw how he changed… I wanted to change for the better, too.”

A key factor in selecting candidates was their determination to improve.

“We look at their passion. We look for potential, and are [they] willing to reach that potential,” said Tremaine France, a Hartford Job Corps official and one of several young black professionals and college students who work as mentors.

Hoag, who is white, sought young black and Latino men to work as academic mentors and serve as role models.

Students undergo rigorous academic drills, including debating contests and tough writing assignments. “By the time they leave us, they’ll be able to write a thesis statement that stands up in college,” Hoag says.

But Hoag and the mentors also discuss matters such as fatherhood, relationships with women, and social etiquette. “One of the first things they learn when they come to us is how to introduce themselves,” Hoag said. In preparation for a dinner celebration at a local restaurant, students learned how to place a napkin and order from a menu that included items such as “Funghi e Tarfuffi Risotto” and “Pollo Poverino.”

How young men comport themselves in various social settings, Hoag said, “is nothing fathers and mothers wouldn’t teach. That’s why we do it.”

One key requirement is the strict dress code, which starts with a visit to a local clothing shop, where students are fitted for business suits provided by the program.

“These suits are not gifts, they’re tools,” said 17-year-old Matthew Bromell, who will be a senior this fall at Hillhouse High School in New Haven. “Most inner city kids may not have suits and attire presented in the business world….You feel more professional when you’re wearing a suit than when you’re wearing jeans and a T-shirt.”

It is all part of what officials hope will result in refocusing students’ attitudes toward their futures.

“The things we are teaching them are things they are missing in school,” said Robert Felder, a program mentor and graduate student at the University of New Haven. “Regardless if your dad is missing, if your mama’s on drugs…the opportunity is in front of you.”

No one is more passionate about the program than Hoag, who sees similarities between today’s students and those he taught more than 30 years ago in predominantly black classes at Norristown Area High School near Philadelphia.

“If we don’t start attacking this problem of the achievement gap one student at a time, we’re never going to get there,” he says.  “The most likely group to be suspended, expelled, not to pass CAPT (the 10th-grade Connecticut Academic Performance Test) is young men of color.”

The figures are sobering. On the state’s CAPT test, for example, 23 percent of black 10th-grade males and 18 percent of Hispanic males scored at the lowest level – “below basic” – in mathematics this year, compared with 3 percent of white males. In reading, 18 percent of black males, 16 percent of Hispanic males and 3 percent of white males scored at the below basic level. Among blacks, boys were twice as likely as girls to fall in the lowest-scoring category.

“The nation’s young black males are in a state of crisis,” the Council of the Great City Schools said in a report last fall, citing high infant mortality rates, single-parent homes, poverty, unemployment and other problems.

In that report, the Washington, D.C.-based group called the problem “a national catastrophe,” citing U.S. government statistics showing the depth of the achievement gap. At grades four and eight, for example, young black males from middle-class and affluent families had even worse scores in reading and mathematics tests than white males from low-income families, the report said.

Statistics like those are the reason the state backs the mentoring program, said Education Commissioner George Coleman, who has visited the Saturday classes and is among the program’s most ardent supporters.

“It is, as a program, one of the most successful I have seen in my educational career,” he said.

The lessons taught by the mentors are similar to “the messages that responsible fathers can provide,” he said. “How do you have the direct, frank conversations with young men around the dimensions of manhood that they are ambiguous about?”

A federal grant of about $135,000 a year is due to run out next year, but Coleman hopes to find new support from state, federal and private sources.

The strongest endorsements come from the students themselves.

Joseph Gonzalez, 17, said he will have more confidence to tackle schoolwork when he returns to Wilbur Cross High School in New Haven this fall. “I see things in a new way,” he said. “I can now say, ‘I can do this,’ as opposed to ‘This is kind of hard.'”

The program, he added, “made me realize what I really could be.”