Local & State Voices

Helping children succeed in school is a gift

It's been months since I sat down with Anthony Foxx, Ron Leeper, John Modest and Calvin Wallace to hear about the program they and others launched at West Charlotte High School this school year. But as Father's Day approaches, I have an opportunity to salute them and others for the gift they're giving to a lot of kids – the gift of themselves.

They, and several other African American business and civic leaders, started the Emerging Leaders Institute at West Charlotte last summer to mentor and support incoming 9th graders. The support is not just for this school year, but throughout their high school career. That's quite an investment.

Women are involved too, and they deserve praise as well. But this idea was the brainchild of a group of black men, who recognize the inestimable value of their involvement in our public schools.

Former city councilman Ron Leeper, head of his own construction firm, was at the core of the effort. “I was tired of hearing the rhetoric of how poorly (African American) children were doing. I said, ‘What are we going to do about it?'”

Leeper contacted several African American business people who committed time and money to start the venture. Current Charlotte City Council member Anthony Foxx became a mentor, as did council member James Mitchell, both West Charlotte grads. Retired, long-time educator Calvin Wallace, who was once acting superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, signed on to provide leadership for the program.

Strides at West Charlotte

The program was developed in consultation with West Charlotte principal John Modest, whose staff has already made strides in boosting student performance at a school once envied for its academic and athletic successes. Increasing numbers of students in CMS, and at West Charlotte in particular, now struggle academically. Many come from families facing significant financial and language difficulties that often impact learning.

“Far too many students are unprepared for the rigors of high school,” Modest says. Mentors and role models can support, prod and provide direction so these kids can be successful in school, and after school.

One of the main goals is to boost graduation rates, and to get kids to continue their education in college. They are committed to ensuring that all freshmen in the program this year graduate together.

That's about 75 students. Each has his own mentor. They meet with the students each week to help with homework and to keep them focused on getting good grades and accomplishing all their goals. The mentors are part of the students' lives outside of school, taking them to museums, basketball games and other events as rewards for their commitment.

School attendance, discipline and parent involvement are also part of the program. “We meet with parents and have parents understand what the expectations are,” said Wallace.

One of those expectations is that these students will become school leaders and mentors for other students. They are expected to help develop a culture at West Charlotte where achieving good grades and reaching their academic potential is something all students aspire to.

West Charlotte already has an impressive group of students who've worked hard and are successful. I read about one just this week

Top of her class

On this Father's Day Sunday, Maria Suarez will graduate with other West Charlotte seniors. She's earned an A in all of her classes, is ranked No. 1 in her class with a 5.32 GPA and received the Gates Millennium Scholarship, which provides full tuition to any school of her choice.

In 2011, this program's participants should graduate. The African Americans who started this project hope they will be just as successful as Maria, and will have inspired many of their peers too. Their gift of themselves should help achieve that goal.