Pittsburgh's black male students urged to become 'Promise ready'

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Westinghouse High School junior Hezekiah Moore is close to meeting the academic standards for up to $40,000 in a Pittsburgh Promise college scholarship.

"It's just time to step it up," he said.

His inspiration was a "We Promise" seminar for about 150 high school juniors who are close to meeting the Promise standards of a 2.5 grade point average and a 90 percent attendance rate, which is called "Promise ready."

"It made me think I want more for myself as a man," said Hezekiah, who set his goal as being the "most successful educated man I can be."

In 2011-12, only 18 percent of African-American male high school seniors were Promise ready, compared with 68 percent of all white students and 34 percent of African-American females.

The "We Promise" session on Thursday marked the beginning of new efforts to help African-American male students meet the Promise standards. A long-term plan is being developed.

In addition to about 150 of the 170 eligible students, about 45 adult black males attended to serve as mentors throughout the morning seminar.

The program included workshops for students to develop their own "brand" by which people will know them; a networking lunch; and motivational speeches by superintendent Linda Lane; Saleem Ghubril, executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise; urban sociologist Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University, and others.

Mr. Noguera -- who grew up in housing projects in Brooklyn, N.Y. -- said the three things that make the biggest difference in his success were mentors, hard work and choosing the right friends.

"If you're around people who are going in the wrong direction, guess what, you need some new friends," he said.

Mr. Ghubril -- who said as an Arab he is often racial profiled and searched at airports -- urged the students not to let negative stereotypes of young black men hinder them.

"You are a remarkable group of young men who are incredibly special, who have immeasurable worth and unending potential," he said.

In one of the sessions in which students worked on developing their own brand, the students quickly gave a long list of negative stereotypes.

In an interview, Westinghouse junior Ramon Still said, "As a young black male, there's always going to be negative energy around you."

But at the seminar, he said, "There's a lot of positive attitudes here."

He set a goal of helping other people succeed when they feel like they can't.

Brashear High School junior Kenneth Strothers said he picked up "a lot of wisdom and knowledge at the seminar." He thought particularly good advice was to "stay focused, have goals and don't give up."

He said, "You've got to apply it to your everyday life."

That's what Ms. Lane wants to see happen -- turning the enthusiasm into action.

"They're going to need continued support," she said in an interview as the group of adult black males began discussing the session and what to do next.

Ms. Lane made sure the group didn't leave with only a burst of enthusiasm.

She told each to write down a next step, and, if they didn't have an idea, she suggested one: Choose the class in which you have the lowest grade and go see that teacher.

"You ask for help. 'I want to pass your class,' " she said. "I'm telling you, teachers respond to people who want to do the work."

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Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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