MIAMI - "I sure hope Timothy doesn't come to school today."
It was when that thought came to mind, says Frederica Wilson, surveying the faces at the conference table in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools headquarters, that she knew she had a problem. After all, she was a school principal, a black woman. And Timothy was a student, a black boy. But Timothy was also a terror and as she drove to school, she found herself hoping he wouldn't be there.
The thought shocked her. If she dreaded Timothy, she says, how must her Hispanic and white teachers have felt about him? And why was it every time she held a disciplinary conference, it was for a black boy? Why were they the ones who always seemed to be in trouble?
So she started meeting with them, "trying to find out why they were so angry and why they were so disruptive and why they wanted to fight all the time." Then she started calling men in to help her.
Fourteen years and more than 15,000 boys later, Wilson is a Florida state senator and the mentoring effort she started has become the 5000 Role Models of Excellence. It operates in 91 Miami-area schools and claims better than 95 percent success at keeping its boys out of trouble with school officials and the law.
Full disclosure: Years ago, I spoke at a Role Models assembly. I think it's a fine example of What Works. As in, my series of columns profiling programs that improve the odds for black kids. Wilson and some of the Role Model men are joined at the conference table by graphic evidence that their program works: boys who became men under its guidance.
One of them is Kionne McGhee. Child of a single mother, he was suspended 47 times, labeled emotionally handicapped and learning disabled. Today he is an assistant state's attorney. "The problem was, I was acting out because I needed a black male or somebody that could relate to me," he says, as opposed to someone who understood him only "through theory."
Police Sgt. Thurman MacNeal is one of 3,000 men who have trained as Role Models. As a black cop whose interactions with black boys too often involve handcuffs, he says, it can be "discouraging because so many of these young men have so much talent it's amazing. But because of other things that are going on with them and because those talents are not being developed..." The thought trails away.
"We have to start somewhere," he says, "and this program has allowed us ... to make a difference."
The program is funded by the school system and by private and corporate sponsors. Its components are many: workshops; scholarships; a basketball tournament; peer, group and one-on-one mentoring; and field trips, including to those opposite poles of black male potential, colleges and penitentiaries. There is a Role Model pledge, a Role Model hymn, custom-made Role Model athletic shoes, and even a Role Model tie. It bears the program's logo: large hands touching small ones. Each boy wears one.
To be surrounded by black men who are productive members of society, says Wilson, allows those boys to envision themselves becoming the same. "I believe children who have a vision of themselves in the future have hope. And without a vision of yourself in the future, you don't value your life and consequently, you don't value the lives of others."
It works, says 20-year-old Joseph Dubery, because "it's not a pamphlet saying, 'Don't do drugs.' It's different levels you have to earn. You earn your tie, you earn your shirt, you earn the right to say that pledge, you earn the right to sing that hymn. It's constant achievement, constant mentorship, constantly people watching out for you."
Dubery, a med student, should know. He used to be a Role Model boy.
Leonard Pitts, a columnist for the Miami Herald, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.