METCO mentoring group members depart changed people

by Juliana Kaplan

Freedom and responsibility. And Ubuntu. Those are their mantras.

It started as a wisp of an idea: an informal group consisting of two or three African-American boys in eighth grade at Pierce School designed to help the students prepare for the challenges they would face in high school.

More students joined, and five years later, the all-male group’s 12 members, all seniors, are preparing to graduate. Every member holds a college acceptance letter.

Jim Cradle, a retired associate dean and a former social studies teacher at the high school, received a phone call a year after his retirement in 2007 from former Headmaster Robert Weintraub, the creator of the group.

“Dr. Weintraub called me and said, ‘Look, what do you think about coming back and being around to share experiences with some of the newer members of our school community, and mentor?’” Cradle said.

According to METCO director Keith Lezama, the decision was made to continue the group into high school, and it was established so it would become open to “everyone and anyone.”

Cradle said the group has focused on a concept called ‘Ubantu’ since the beginning of their journey.

“It’s an African concept, and it says, ‘I am what I am, because of who we all are,’” Cradle said. “So we gather around that notion, that there is something larger than ourselves in this intellectual experience that they are embarking on at Brookline High School.”

The group now directs its attention towards social and academic problems that young African-American men may face during their time in high school and in the broader world and offers a forum to tackle and discuss these issues.

The group had formal meetings when its members were freshmen and sophomores: All members met every X-block to discuss issues and support one another. It began meeting in small groups during the junior and senior year of the students. Now it meets on an as-needed basis, the large turnout a testament to members’ loyalty.

Senior Branden Miles, a member of group for four years, said the group members work actively to create a support system for one another.

“We all want to be successful, and we’re willing to make any kind of sacrifices to help each other be successful,” Miles said. “Whether that’s staying after school, helping each other out with papers or math, or just calling each other now and then, checking up on each other to see what’s going on family-wise or personally. Having that kind of family is really helpful.”

Lezama believes the group plays an integral part in forming the confidence and paths of the boys who participate.

“It builds a sense of self worth, but also [teaches the boys] to give back and realize that you’re not only in this race for yourself, but for others,” Lezama said. “That’s why I’m here. I wanted to give back.”

Senior Tyreik Mosley has found a strong sense of support in the leaders and community of the group during his four years attending especially when he requires guidance, advice or simply a place to voice his thoughts.

“The group has impacted me greatly because of all the different opinions and ideas that we share, understanding all of the problems we have in the high school, [with] support from my brothers, and also from Mr. Cradle, Mr. Lezama and sometimes Dean Mims,” Mosley said. “They come in and give us advice and tell us stories about what happened when they were in high school. It helps me to have their advice and my brothers’ advice to bring back to that situation and fix it.”

According to Miles, X-block meetings usually start with a question posed to the group by a leader as to how members’ respective weeks or days have been. The group builds its discussion based off of how individuals respond.

“Usually, our conversation stems off of something that somebody says,” Miles said. “An example would be, ‘I really struggled on the test,’ so we’ll go through asking what happened and ways we can change next time.”

Miles said he actively feels the influence of the group and the brotherhood within it.

“I think everybody in the group has had an influence on me because they’re all my brothers. It’s impossible to say one person has had the most influence,” Miles said. “As a collective group, I think that’s had the most impact.”

Senior Denzel David, another member of the group, has found an enriching environment in the group’s steady presence and support.

“It’s guided my high school career a lot. All these guys—I just rely on in case of anything, and since we’re real tight, we stayed together since our freshman year,” David said. “So it’s like we grew up around each other. They’ve helped me a lot.”

In the past, the group has tackled both personal and academic issues by discussing the problems they faced. Those in more difficult classes helped those who were struggling; in return, members offer advice and support for personal issues.

A main issue the group has worked on is approaching teachers for advice, which can be a daunting task for many. The group has tried to find the best way to ask for optimal results. According to Cradle, setting goals has been instrumental in the group’s progress.

“We have them set goals. Long-term goals, short-term goals. If they started in eighth grade, we started with ninth grade goals, short-term,” Cradle said. “We monitor those things, and we come up with different strategies to help them meet those particular goals that they might have.”

According to Mosley, the group has discussed more racially charged issues.

“We’ve talked about how to deal with being the only African-American in a certain class, and how difficult it is trying to relate without having that other person of color to talk to you and relate to you in that class,” Mosley said.

Dean Adrian Mims, a dean of students and a strong presence in the METCO program, believes that this is among many important problems for a group of African-American students to examine.

“Being a young African-American male, you’re always cognitive of who you are, and the perceptions and assumptions that exist, the good and the bad,” Mims said. “And so I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s very important for them to have this group where they can talk and discuss these things.”

Mims believes the group offers an outlet to the harsh reality of being a modern teenager.

“If you think about the times we live in, it’s very, very difficult being a teenager. I think the world is a lot more dangerous now; it’s a dangerous place, and there are a lot of pitfalls,” Mims said. “It’s very difficult to navigate some of the challenges and issues that exist that teenagers have to deal with.”

Lezama, Cradle and Mims have seen the boys grow tremendously throughout their time in the group as they faced both serious and comical issues.

“I’ve seen them grow significantly, I’ve seen them mature, I’ve seen take on more responsibility for themselves and also their learning. All of them value their education,” Mims said. “They all, in my opinion, seem to be very positive and have direction and purpose in their lives.”

Lezama has seen huge improvements and growth within the group as well as its impact on the surrounding community.

“I think where these young men were freshman year, to sit down and talk to them now, the things that we discussed over the last four years, it’s coming out in the way they are talking to their peers and to the younger men just making sure that they’re doing the right thing, making sure that they’re meeting with teachers and advocating for themselves,” Lezama said.

Lezama says he has seen a positive transformation within the group because of members’ motivation to succeed.

“I had a conversation with four young men today that are part of our group and just asked them how have we, how has this program, this group, transformed their lives. What one student said, which really pulled at my heartstrings, was that he did not want to let us down,” Lezama said. “He looked up to us. He had someone who he wanted to make proud that wasn’t his mom and wasn’t his dad, and that was Mr. Cradle, Dean Mims, Dr. Vick and myself. That motivated him and inspired him to want to do the best he can.”

Cradle, as the main mentor, has seen other changes in the boys since their initial year with the group.

“The way they interact with each other has changed over the last four years. The way they engage in conversation amongst themselves, but also they way in which they engage others outside of their group,” Cradle said, “there’s a level of maturity in terms of the way with which they approach teachers and sometimes it’s hard to put it in words how much they have grown.”

On a METCO boys retreat, Lezama listened in on conversations led by the group members addressing the younger members of the METCO program. Lezama heard them tell their stories of resiliency and the roadmaps they laid out for younger members to overcome the obstacles they may stumble upon: all of the tools and lessons discussed by the group with Lezama and Cradle.

According to Lezama, an important objective for the whole group was “dispelling those negative stereotypes which clout and hinder the progress of African-American males.”

Listening to the conversations the boys led independently, Lezama came to a realization.

“They’ve done that. They have broken the stereotype,” Lezama said. “They have done that just by being great citizens, but just the way that they smile and walk the halls and greet teachers and the way teachers respect them and really care and love them for the stuff that they’ve done. They’re just role models for everyone.”

Lezama has taken the lessons he has learned from these young men to heart.

“I’m so thankful to them for making me a better person, making me a better educator, a better listener, and they have given me insight into what is needed in order to address the education inequalities and these inequities that take place in our educational system. They have provided me with the tools to do a better job,” Lezama said. “To me, they’ve had more of an impact on my life than I’ve had on theirs. It’s going to be sad when they leave, but they’re amazing young men.”

Cradle plans to leave the high school when the group’s members graduate. There are no current plans for a group of this kind to continue at the school.

Cradle sighed as he reflected on the group, one which was supposed to have him in at the high school once a week. In reality, Cradle has been at the school whenever the members needed him: be it an X-block, or, according to Lezama, almost any other day.

“Honestly, it has been a beautiful experience and a wonderful journey,” Cradle said. “I’m looking forward to celebrating their success.”

Juliana Kaplan can be contacted at [email protected]