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100 Black Men makes a mission of mentoring (photo gallery)



Every Wednesday, 9-year-old Valonte gets up an hour earlier than usual for school.

He jumps out of bed, scarfs down breakfast and hurries to Michael R. White School, where he is greeted by a group of men dressed in suits. The men are members of 100 Black Men of Greater Cleveland, a nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of life and creating opportunities for African American communities, and they're there to tutor Valonte and his classmates.

CMSD Chief Executive Officer Eric Gordon calls mentoring a critical need for his students. The District offers a variety of mentoring and tutoring opportunities for students, including the True2U program for every eighth-grade student. Some programs, like the 100 Black Men, target the unique needs of specific students.

(Cleveland Jewels provide positive role models for black girls)

The mentoring arm of 100 Black Men' reaches boys at two CMSD schools: Michael R. White and Fullerton. Gary Carrington is the chairman of the organization and director of the mentoring programs, which have been at the schools for two years.

“We’re here to be a positive force in the lives of these students and show them something different than what they’re accustomed to seeing,” Carrington said.

The mentors come from a variety of career backgrounds, including law, psychology, medicine, education and finance. Many of them grew up in the same Cleveland neighborhoods where the boys they mentor now live.

On a typical Wednesday morning, Valonte and close to 30 other third-graders gather in the school library. They start by choosing a book from the shelves and sitting with one of the mentors to read aloud. The mentors chime in to help with pronunciations or definitions of difficult words.

The focus on reading for this grade level is deliberate and aimed at boosting students’ readiness to meet Ohio’s Third Grade Reading Guarantee, a requirement to move on to fourth grade, Carrington said. The mentors talk to teachers to stay updated on students' progress, attendance and behavior and to identify areas where the students need the most help.

According to Valonte’s mother, Candies Robinson, the individual attention is making a difference. She said her son’s reading test scores have jumped 25 points since he started working with the 100 Black Men mentors.

Valonte has also benefited from the character development aspect of the program, which the mentors incorporate during group and one-on-one discussions about the organization's six pillars of character: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship.

The most important thing for the boys, Robinson says, is simply spending time with successful, caring men.

“Most kids growing up don’t have a male mentor and right now we really need it,” she said. “It becomes challenging for them, and a lot of kids lash out and get angry. But coming here, they're not angry. I noticed that all the little boys are smiling.”

Some of the boys live with single mothers, which makes the mission of exposing them to positive male role models even more important, Carrington said.

The mentors bring the same message to Fullerton School in Slavic Village on Wednesday afternoons. The men spend the last class period of the day with fourth- and fifth-grade boys to delve into leadership development.

Each week, the session begins by reciting an affirmation that includes the lines, “I believe in honesty and integrity. My word is my bond and my handshake can be counted on. Truth is my motto."

The Fullerton programming focuses on teaching boys about personal hygiene, respecting authority, self-worth and respecting girls and women. The mentors use a combination of personal knowledge and educational resources to guide the boys toward a positive self-image.

On a recent visit, the mentors focused on influential African American figures in honor of Black History Month. They facilitated small group discussions on how individuals -- including W.E.B. DuBois and James Baldwin --- opened doors for future generations. One boy who was chosen as a group leader then presented to the rest of the class.

Brett Horton, a Cleveland attorney who volunteers as a mentor, said activities like this serve to grow confidence in the boys as they become young men. He pointed out one student whose behavior and work ethic have changed dramatically since Horton first met him.

“When he first came to the program, he was a little rough around the edges,” Horton said. “But he worked hard, and the growth he made was tremendous. Now when you talk to him, he looks you in the eye and shakes your hand.”

Horton points to the student as an example for his peers to follow.

Fullerton Principal Kevin Payton said the 100 Black Men mentors are making a noticeable impact on his students, with fewer of the boys being sent to his office for discipline.

“The relationships they’re building are really important,” Payton said. “A lot of the mentors grew up in this area and can relate to many of the social issues the boys go through. They can talk to them about doing the right thing.”

Carrington says the number one priority is to develop meaningful relationships with the boys. That's why they also incorporate fun events like Indians game outings and giving each boy a toy during the holiday season. 

Mentoring isn't always easy, Carrington said, but the persistence and dedication of the mentors reaps immeasurable rewards. He recalled one mentor, a pediatrician, who was working with a student who refused to read and wasn’t making any progress. The mentor slowly gained his trust by getting to know him and encouraging him. Eventually, he started to open up.

“It could have been easy for the mentor to move on and work with a student who was actually engaged, but he stuck with that student, who's now reading and excited about reading,” Carrington said. “In fact, that student said he wants to become a pediatrician himself.”

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