Above, Villager Mack Calvin, a retired NBA point guard, talks to young men at Helen Bernstein Senior High School during the meeting of the Village Movement Mentoring Program.

By Dr. Brenda Manuel
Student Involvement, Development and Empowerment Unit

Too often, young men of color – specifically African-American and Latino students – get a bad rap at school. As a group, they are known for having the lowest test scores, highest rate of suspensions and lowest chance of leaving high school with a diploma.

School districts, including L.A. Unified, have tried many programs, theories and programs to boost the academic achievement for these students. By listening, we have developed strategies that are working.

“I Rise,” an annual conference for young men of color, gathers 300 high school students. In addition to the workshops, speeches and handouts, we ask them what they need to succeed.

Mentors, they said, but not just anybody. We want men who look like us, who have been where we are, who have had similar experiences and who have learned how to navigate their way to a successful career, as well as a productive life.

Bernstein students meet with former UCLA Bruin Donovan Carter during the “I Rise” leadership conference held earlier this year.

Role models, they responded, but not talkers who rarely come around. We want ongoing support from men who listen, who check on us regularly and help us with life lessons that result in positive outcomes. We want advisers who will make sure that – against the odds and in spite of stereotypes and the assumptions – we are making plenty of progress.

Their outcry has led to the development of the Village Movement Mentoring Program, a new model, co-created with researcher and educational consultant Wes Hall. The goal is to make sure young men understand the importance of a good education, personal responsibility and initiative. Instead of sitting back and waiting for someone to tell them what they should be doing or to give them things, these young men are setting goals, including those for academics, health and career and then are learning how to meet and surpass the bar they set.

The students, called scholars, meet twice each month for an hour or 90 minutes with their mentors, called “villagers.” Some students gather after school, while others meet during an advisory period or another time determined by their principals. The groups or villages follow a curriculum called “You Are the Money!” developed by Hall, covering topics like understanding how education leads to financial gain, setting goals, the End Game, and building effective relationships.

In groups, they work with mentors/villagers. Some are school district employees, while others are professionals from the community, fraternities and civic groups. The variety and diversity of mentors is important, because we want mentors to look like our scholars and to be able to relate to our students. And, they need to make a long-term commitment.

The Village LEAD is the head villager and is the liaison between all participants and the school. The group dynamics allow the villagers to mentor the scholars, the students/scholars to mentor each other and then to mentor their peers. This structure has resulted in meaningful connections between students, who sometimes listen to each other’s guidance more than they would to advice from other adults.

One day a young man was talking about difficulties he was having in an Advanced Placement (AP) class, and another student asked, “What’s that?”

“‘You don’t know what an AP class is? You need to be in one,” the first student responded. He began to help the other young man try to get into an advanced course that could lead to college credit. This is just one example of a scholar helping another scholar. They learn from each other, they mentor each other and they learn from their mentors.

The pay-off, so far, is success in the high level of student engagement and student connection to learning and school outcomes. Now, however, the students want more mentors, more time and more activities.

Like many mentoring initiatives, the Village Movement Mentoring Program strives to provide students with skills that will prepare them for college and careers. What makes this program unique is the group settings that allow students to hear from multiple mentors, to learn from each other and to follow a set curriculum that teaches important lessons and skills in a relaxed and supportive setting.

While the program sprouted out of conversations with young men of color in high school, the Village Movement Mentoring Program has now expanded to elementary and middle school and includes girls. Some villages are geared toward specific student populations, such as foster youth, and another for newcomers to the school district.

It’s spreading. More schools have signed on for the new school year. More mentors, many more, are needed. More may come from the school district, thanks to a resolution, authored by Karen Calderon, a former student representative on the Board of Education. “Volunteering on the Clock,” would widen the pool of adult mentors. Approved in June, it directed L.A. Unified staff to explore the possibility of employees volunteering during their workday for two hours a month with the Village Movement Mentoring Program. The Board recently received that report. If implemented, the resolution would significantly increase mentoring in our schools.

Mentor by mentor, scholar by scholar, village by village an increasing number of our students are getting a unique opportunity to help them do better. All because we listened.

A training session for the Village Movement Mentoring Program will be held 4-6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19, at the Parent and Community Services Branch, 1360 W. Temple St. For information, call 213-481-3317 or email brenda.manuel@lausd.net.