A book has changed the course of two South Mecklenburg High sophomores’ lives, and they’ve formed a group called RISE to impact others just like them.
Josh Amoako said he preferred sleeping in class to paying attention as a freshman last year. Now, he says education is his highest priority.
His friend and classmate Dre Goode-Legette recalls being lazy in middle school. “I wouldn’t do homework, I wouldn’t study,” he said. “Sometimes I wouldn’t take tests.” At his grandmother’s insistence, he cleaned up some of his act by the time he got to South Meck.
A lot, however, changed for the two after they read “The Other Wes Moore” in English teacher Kim Hunniford’s class last year.
The autobiography tells of two African-American men who had much in common: their name, age and Baltimore upbringing. But the author was a Rhodes Scholar who became a decorated combat veteran and business leader. The other Wes Moore is serving a life sentence in prison. The book explores choices the two men made that shaped their lives.
Josh, 16, and Dre, 15, were so moved that they wanted to do something to help African-American male students at South Mecklenburg find support, make a positive impact on the school and succeed academically.
Josh said the book was a wake-up call. “It did strike a chord with me,” he said. “It showed me things I need to do.”
With Hunniford’s guidance, they created RISE last year but didn’t make the group publicly known until this fall. Josh, Dre and a group of other young black men presented the idea to faculty this fall, who supported the idea.
“I thought people were going to be running at them with their wallets open, that’s how well they pitched it,” said Joe Rothenberg, the Communities In Schools site coordinator at South Mecklenburg.
Hunniford said the meeting was emotional, and that several students talked about their insecurities and how they want help at school but don’t know where to turn.
“I was really impressed with how the young men were open with me about their aspirations and concerns,” said Principal Maureen Furr. “That initiative you don’t see every day. They’ve gone above and beyond.”
The group of about 30 students meets weekly and usually hosts an African-American guest speaker who talks to them about how education played a role in his success. The boys will also learn to check their grades online during meetings and coordinate meetings with teachers to address problems.
Josh and Dre are working to create buddy groups with faculty members, too. “We want to create little families,” Dre said, “and guys can know they can always go to this person.”
They plan to take field trips to gain cultural exposure as well as college tours, Hunniford said. “The whole point is to get them to succeed in school.”
Academically, black male students at South Mecklenburg were the lowest-achieving group last year, and that trend was the same for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and the state.
For the 2012-2013 year, just 21.8 percent of black male students in North Carolina were deemed “proficient,” based on a compilation of their scores for end-of-course (EOC) tests in English, math and biology, according to data from the state board of education. (National numbers, using the new Common Core standards, aren’t available, but similar achievement gaps have been noted in the past.)
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ black male students fared better, at 26.4 percent, and South Mecklenburg’s better, at 27.9 percent. Still, 64.9 percent of white males were rated proficient at South Mecklenburg, with Asian males topping all subgroups at 78.3 percent.
Dre called the statistics he’s seen on black male students “frightening.”
Josh said he imagines he could have become a negative statistic, because he was in a bad place by eighth grade. He said his older brother died of an asthma attack, and he had an unhealthy home life.
“If RISE never came about, I’d still probably be sleeping in class,” he said.
He said “The Other Wes Moore” pointed him in the right direction, and he’s since become more committed to his Christian faith. He also likes reading now, and is in an honors English class this year.
It’s the first time Josh has ever been in an honors class. He said he’s learned education is the key to a better life.
“It’s like a football: Once you have it, you should hold on tight. It can lead to good things,” he said.
The two accompanied Hunniford to the UNC Charlotte Urban Education Collaboration conference in October and heard Wes Moore speak. They got to meet him and are now in contact with him about RISE.
The boys said RISE isn’t closed to students of other races, but does focus on black males.
The excitement at South Meck about RISE has galvanized other students to do well in school. RISE co-adviser and South Meck teacher Jerry Duncan said girls are clamoring to start their own group.
“We’re very excited about that,” he said. Duncan, who is black, said it’s disheartening to often see young black men make bad choices. But he said RISE is a step in the right direction.
“This is something needed to give the guys something to take pride in, to have some sense of engagement, something like, ‘I can be something,’” he said.
Dre is taking all honors classes this year, and he’s in the Navy branch of Junior ROTC. Josh keeps a Bible in his pocket wherever he goes, and he’s a gifted beatboxer. The two are also trying to create a partnership with elementary and middle schools for a RISE mentoring program.
Both want to go to college. Dre would like to study zoology and dreams of being a world-traveling herpetologist, studying reptiles and amphibians. Josh wants to pursue biology and chemistry and become an astronomer.
Josh said he’s grateful he was in Hunniford’s class and had the fortune of reading “The Other Wes Moore.”
“It’s a complete 180,” he said. “I used to look at school as a prison. Now I see it as an opportunity.”