Mentors keep young blacks on track

Group motivates students to aim higher

From left, Ed Brunt, Bud Stallworth, Craig Butler and Willie Amison founded the Can We Talk mentoring program for young black males at both Lawrence and Free State high schools. Their efforts have helped close the racial achievement gap in test scores.

Craig Butler leads a discussion with a group of Free State students in this September 2009 photo. The Can We Talk group is expanding into Central Junior High School next month, and its founders would like to eventually have the program in elementary schools.

Evan Wilburn thought school just wasn’t for him. He wasn’t able to graduate after three years at Free State High School and wanted to drop out and get his GED.

College? It wasn’t in the picture.

“I’m thinking, ‘I can’t do this,'” Wilburn said. “Why are you putting all this pressure on me?”

But a new after-school program changed his mind in just one semester. Wilburn is going for his high school diploma and beyond.

“I think I could really impact the future,” said Wilburn, who will be able to graduate in the spring. “I think I should go ahead and try to go to college because I think what I’m going to be doing is important.”

A program called Can We Talk provides adult mentors for black males at both Free State and Lawrence high schools. For Wilburn and fellow Free State senior Julien Bremby, the experience has changed their perspective.

“It gives you the belief that you can do it and you can be successful instead of the alternative,” Bremby said.

Test scores have become a focal point in education. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, all school districts nationwide must meet benchmarks, which are higher each year, in measurements of their students’ test scores on state assessments. The law also mandates that districts report their scores in subgroups, including by race.

“When people do hear statistics like that, they don’t try,” Bremby said. “And when they don’t try, it gets worse.”

That’s where Willie Amison, who has served as principal at three Lawrence elementary schools and and assistant principal at Lawrence High, noticed a disconnect with the young black male students in town. Amison is currently an adviser at Kansas University’s Educational Opportunities Center

“Willie started seeing the disparity between test grades and scores overall,” said Ed Brunt, a Van Go Mobile Arts program director. “It’s not because we don’t have the ability. It’s because no one has shown them the reason why they should do it.”

Meeting the need

Amison and Brunt — joined by longtime youth basketball coach Craig Butler and Kansas University basketball legend Bud Stallworth — wanted to do something about it.

Their group Can We Talk is designed to guide the boys through the processes of education and prepare them for life after school by having the boys listen to those who have been in their places before and made it through to successful ends.

“We see some improvements in the educational field for men of color and minorities, but then we see the opposite spectrum where there has not been enough change,” Stallworth said.

While the program is still young, the founders have already noticed improvements in the students’ test scores after showing the high school students on paper the physical gap between minority and majority achievement.

“We’re able to close that achievement gap over just one test period by 30 points in reading, 11 points in math,” Amison said. “We try to emphasize to our young men the importance of the test they’re taking.”

But for the district, the African-American population isn’t the only minority affected by the achievement gap.

“There’s other data there that’s pretty disturbing as it relates to Native American data, Hispanic data,” said Superintendent Rick Doll. “We have achievement gaps when it comes to students of color, students from poverty.”

Doll said based on test results from the Kansas state assessments and the district’s own MAP testing, or Measure of Academic Progress, the achievement gap is several percentage points in both reading and math. MAP tests are scored on a Rasch Interval Unit scale, which is an equal interval scale. For example, the ninth-grade district median score is a 243 in math and a 232 in reading. African-American students in that grade score 232 in math and 223 in reading, while their white peers score a 246 in math and 235 in reading.

“The achievement gap is real and we know it’s there,” Doll said.

School board member Bob Byers, who spent time as chairman of the district’s equity council, says the achievement gap isn’t strictly about race.

“True, race is a part of it, but it’s not about black, white, green, yellow,” Byers said. “What it’s really about are children of color. All of our children are suffering.”

Program expanding

Can We Talk is going to start the program in Central Junior High in February.

The men have limited time and resources for the program, but their goal is to get the program in as many schools as possible to begin instilling the importance of education early, preferably at the elementary level.

“If you’ve already set that seed and that foundation, then by high school, it’s already there. They already know their value and worth,” Brunt said. “When you’re coming in the last year of school, then you’re working again a tree that’s pretty much already been grown.”

Amison said if the program had unlimited time and resources, the differences would be obvious.

“If we had more time to do it full time and to get into schools every day, follow up on kids, we could guarantee results,” Amison said. “(Time and resources) are the things that curtail what you’re able to pull off in the end.”

And while Doll says Lawrence’s minority students perform well compared with a national average of test scores, it’s the comparison to majority students that is problematic.

“I think we have a moral and ethical responsibility to educate all kids,” Doll said.

And for the Can We Talk men, getting their groups to make the grade doesn’t just affect their future in education.

“Our kids are going to jail and that’s talent that is being wasted,” Butler said. “We had to do something to … stop it in its tracks because we’re losing too many kids to drugs, gangs and prison.”

And for Wilburn and Bremby, that message has affected their lives.

“It teaches us a lot about how to not give up and how to change things and change your future and possibly change the world,” Wilburn said.