At yesterday's City of Buffalo Dropout Prevention Leadership Summit
, a panel of 6 students came up to the stage and took seats, while their mentor, Tracy McGee of Erie 1 BOCES, took the podium to ask questions.
The students had the bright and shiny look of overachievers. They looked like a stacked deck of kids who'd never seen a bad day in their lives. It was easy to sit and listen, arms folded, until they started to tell their backstories; that's when the notebook came out. And for privacy purposes, all of the children have been assigned fictitious names here.
At first though, it was simple Q & A. McGee posed the question: "What's your idea of a perfect school?
Martin answered that they would like to be involved in the "structure" of the school. He said that students want a say in resolutions to problems, with everyone's opinions weighing equally. They want, Martin said, "to be humans first."
Next, Ella answered. "We want teachers to be more involved for those of us without support at home," she said. "I know kids who have to stay home from school to take care of their brother or sister when they get sick. We want the school to be like a community that helps raise us. We want teachers that don't walk out of the school at the end of the day - someone who'll say, 'You scored a 60 on this test. Stay after today and I'll give you a hand.'"
Rodney said, "We want the school to be like a second home that doesn't have the stress of home. School can be a place of relief. We could have peer conferences to resolve conflicts and bring a teacher in later. There should be peace at school without suspensions."
The youngest member of the group, and 8th-grader named Leo, said, "We need communication with teachers. We need to be able to open up about anything."
Danika said, "We need someone to talk to, to trust, who will motivate and support us in what we do."
Finally, Nina, the soft-spoken and shy member of this highly articulate panel said, "We want to learn 'real world' things, hands-on things. I want to learn things so I can be successful for my 2-year-old son. We need teachers who'll stand behind us and motivate us and encourage us."
When McGee prompted the group about which of the 5 promises of the America's Promise Alliance
meant the most to them, Rodney said, "I'm a 19-year old sophomore, and I want the opportunity to help others. I'm the president of a youth group in my community now, and I know that it's never too late, but I was angry, from a broken family...I want to help."
Martin spoke up, "Caring adults. Tracy McGee is my mentor. If I had to call him at 3AM, he'd come and get me. The term 'safe place' isn't necessarily literally a place - 'healthy start' to me means my going off to college next year where I'll have a new healthy start. But Tracy taught me how to dress, speak and deal with people. I've gone across the state to speak, to educators, and sometimes I look out in the room, and I see people who gave up on me a long time ago. Now I'm teaching the teachers."
Ella described one Sunday when she was at church. Her pastor, looking out over the congregation, noticed that the adults were sitting alone, while there was a mass of kids, some not behaving so well, off in a bunch by themselves. "My pastor told all of the children to stand, and half the church stood up. He said to us, 'Latch onto an adult as a sign that you want to make yourselves better. Find one person who's been there, and listen to them.'"
McGee added to Ella's story that we, as adults, need to look at the world from a young person's perspective too. Then he asked how best to use the promises.
"I would speak about what I've been through," Rodney said. "Not all adults know everything. I'm a youth, and yes, I did mess up, but I can do better. I don't have to go down a rocky road alone."
Martin said, "I didn't have anyone at home to tell me what to do. My mother was doing drugs, my father was gone. It didn't matter what I did. My duty is to pull other kids out of the fire. We have people with so much book knowledge and no common sense."
Danika said that her grandfather has a tendency to explain things in her life as "been there done that. And I tell him that was 80 years ago! When I went over to South Park, I saw kids who were having sex and doing drugs and dropping out with 8 weeks left. We need to take responsibility and listen too."
Nina replied that she valued the opportunity to help others. She does this through Americorps, and thinks it's most important to get youth involved and keep them off the streets.
Next, McGee asked his charges what they thought their most significant factor in regaining trust was.
"My plan was to be the man!" Martin said. "I was too lazy to do my school work, but I took the tests well. My teachers recognized potential in me." Martin said that McGee wanted good students and bad students and that's how he ended up being mentored by him. "I would sit in class and swear. Oh, my poor teacher, she was such a nice lady too. So I went and apologized one day and she gave me a slip to take a little 'field trip'." The field trip sent him right to McGee, who told Martin his own back story that led to his eventual graduation at the age of 20. McGee then went on to get 2 Master's degrees, so he could help kids just like himself and train "both those who'd been there and those who never would" to help others.
"My mother promised me that if I didn't straighten up, I'd either be in jail or dead," Rodney said. "When I got kicked out of school, she sent me to Academy 44. She said I would see myself in the other kids and that it wouldn't be pretty. I sat back and watched. I understood, and then I saw my potential." He added that he's the type of person that always looks another person in the eye when he speaks to them. "But when I told my mother I was suspended, she just put her head down and cried. I decided I only want to make her cry from joy from now on."
Danika, who'd been in a few fights, said that it was death that really turned her around, that and the devoted attention of her choir teacher, Linda Appleby. "I'm a junior," Danika said, "and I've been to 5 funerals already. That's ridiculous. These were my friends, and I can't call them anymore. It's so strange when you can't call a friend anymore."
A member of the audience stood and asked what sort of technology or tools the students would like at their access to help them achieve their goals. "Same as since the beginning of time," Martin answered. He said he responds to being pushed to succeed. "With so many people pushing me and showing interest, I can't let them down. I have to be able to look them in the eye."
McGee ended by asking the student's what they would ask from the adults in their lives. Danika said, "Latch onto a student, have faith, push and don't give up."
Martin made the concluding remark by saying, "I hear everybody talkin' but I look around the sidewalk and nobody's walkin'.
McGee clearly loves what he does with the students, and he's quite devoted, but he can use some help. He trains youth through the AssetAmbassadors Program, but says he need adults where ever he can find them. He'll come to block clubs, community centers and he'll make some mentors. "Young people in a marginal environment need perseverance and resilience," McGee said. "And mentors. They need mentors."