Lack of funding leaves void in mentoring, academic services

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The wooded expanse of Frick Park had been transformed before Michael Smith’s eyes.

In one corner of a grassy field was an obstacle course that mixed learning with sport: math equations and jump ropes, history readings and kickball. Ten African-American boys, students in middle school and high school, worked through the stations in turn.

“Every time we got a problem right, we ran the bases,” Mr. Smith said.

The 18-year-old Woodland Hills High School graduate is one of 140 students who partook in the Delany Scholars Program, a district-wide initiative that provided mentoring and academic help to African-American male students in the sixth to 12th grades. The program, which was established two years ago with a $750,000 Heinz grant, came to an end last month when its funding ran out.

The initiative’s cancellation leaves a void where, however briefly, an avenue for growth and collaboration had been carved out for a group that educators often overlook.

Among the 4,000 students in the district, a little more than 1,200 are African-American males, but when they started the program, black male students were seven times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts, superintendent Alan Johnson said.

“It’s not something we’re proud of,” Mr. Johnson said. “We’ve got to stop it.”

He attributes part of this performance gap to a dearth of African-American male role models in education, a trend that is reflected nationally. Of all the district’s teachers, only three are black men.

The Delany Scholars Program was a step toward solving this problem. While its resources were only available to a select group of students, those whom their teachers had identified as academically promising, the impact was transformative, participants said.

They took part in activities such as peer tutoring and after-school revisions. On several occasions, program director Reginald Hickman and two other teachers organized visits from African-American male professionals, seeking to dispel the stereotype that black men can’t succeed in higher education and the workforce.

“A lot of people don’t know what young black men on the rise are capable of,” said Mr. Smith, who will attend Allegheny College this fall.

When they began, many of the younger students were reluctant to learn, Mr. Smith recalled. They knocked books off the table and stole other students’ food, anything to avoid the work ahead. By the second year’s end, they were greeting Mr. Smith in the hallways with the same books in hand.

Sheldon Johnson, 13, a Delany Scholar in middle school, recounted a live performance where the students learned the life story of Martin Delany, a renowned abolitionist, onetime Pittsburgh resident and the program’s namesake.

It was stirring to watch their hero’s journey come to life, adding that the show made it easier for him to imagine following in Mr. Delany’s footsteps, Sheldon said.

Both students said the program brought them together with some of their closest friends at school. Between after-school sessions and academic outings, the boys formed bonds grounded in a shared ambition: to go beyond what the world expected of them.

College enrollment is often characterized as the end goal for young black males, Mr. Hickman said. The Delany Scholars Program sought to show students they were capable of much more, requiring its participants to maintain a minimum 3.5 GPA and enroll in honors or AP classes.

According to Mr. Hickman, subtle discriminatory attitudes can be the most perilous of all.

“The thing about racism is that it’s so present, it’s like the air we breathe,” he said. “We don’t even notice it.”

While there is no possibility of the program being renewed, Mr. Johnson and Mr. Hickman plan to apply what Delany Scholars have taught them to the schools’ teaching pedagogy.

Now the district’s director of pupil personnel services, Mr. Hickman said he will work to develop race-conscious instruction for teachers, helping them become aware of the inadvertent biases that might impede fair instruction in the classroom.

The Delany Scholars Program culminated its two years with a June trip to Washington, D.C., when 22 high school students traveled through the capital on a tour of landmarks significant to African-American history.

For a few days, the group forgot that this trip would be their last. On the checkered floors of Ben’s Chili Bowl, one of the few D.C. spots still standing after the race riots of 1968 and a favorite restaurant of President Barack Obama, the future didn’t seem so far away.


Yanan Wang: ywang@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1964 or on Twitter @yananw.

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