Can belonging to a street gang help prepare for a career?
A mentoring program at Hempstead High School broached that and other topics in ways that "weren't judgmental," said Attah-jundwe Obiajulu, a volunteer mentor with the nonprofit 100 Black Men of Long Island.
Obiajulu, a retired U.S. Army colonel who owns a financial consultancy in Syosset, said the mentors would ask students where they see themselves in five years and how they intend to reach their destination.
"We let them talk," he added. "They educated us as much as we educated them."
Ultimately, Obiajulu said, the students had "an 'aha' moment" - and concluded that being a gang member was not a realistic route to success.
New program in the works
The Nigerian-born Obiajulu led the program at Hempstead High, a school plagued by poor attendance and low graduation rates. Starting in 2007, about 50 male students in grades 9-12 participated each year until last spring, when the program came to an end.
According to Chotsani Williams, the nonprofit Institute of Student Achievement liaison between the volunteer mentors and the high school, the program dissolved because of restructuring and administrative turnover at the school, which included the departure of the school's principal as well as her own move into another job.
Now 100 Black Men, whose mission is to improve quality of life and enhance educational and economic opportunities for African-Americans on Long Island, is aiming to continue mentoring young men in Hempstead and starting programs in other school districts. Those include Roosevelt, Wyandanch and Freeport, said Phil Andrews, the group's president.
Obiajulu recently participated in a mentor-training weekend, a step taken to ensure the organization will be "prepared to mentor at school districts across Long Island," Andrews said.
Ernie Kight, principal of Freeport High School, said he's looking forward to the program's debut there. "It's a great idea to have people from the business world come in and help mentor our kids," Kight said.
In Hempstead, 100 Black Men is planning for a mentoring program at the group's headquarters, at 9 Centre St., said group member Warren Woodberry Jr. No start date has been set, he said.
Mentors in the program at Hempstead High encouraged students to discuss self-esteem, the skills necessary for success, and how to build positive relationships.
The program was aimed at helping the teens "build relationships with business leaders that could also serve as role models," said Hank Williams, former assistant principal at Hempstead High.
The program was coordinated by the school district, 100 Black Men and the Institute of Student Achievement, a national nonprofit organization focused on preparing students in underperforming high schools for college.
Life lessons taught, learned
Obiajulu and 10 rotating mentors met with a small group of students every Tuesday and Wednesday, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Students would participate during their free periods.
Daily sessions covered topics from conflict resolution and financial literacy to career planning and even etiquette. In one session, Obiajulu said, he told how he had used diplomacy to defuse a potentially violent situation - "This guy wanted to beat me up, but I talked him out of it."
He learned later that a student said he had relied on that discussion to avoid a potentially violent lunchroom episode. "This student was excited that my advice worked," Obiajulu said.
The mentors also told the students to "always have a plan B" because, Obiajulu said, many aspired to become successful athletes or entertainers - career plans that can't be counted on. After such discussions, he said, students began to formulate "very rational" options - including "being an engineer or a schoolteacher."
The mentors deemed the program a success due to the positive responses of the students as well as an Institute of Student Achievement report that showed improved test scores and class attendance.
"Early on, students would show up late and sit there with heads down and no eye contact," Obiajulu said. "As the program progressed, students became more attentive and even apologized when late."
Najee Jeremiah, an electrical engineering student at Howard University in Washington, D.C., participated in 2009.
"It was a really cool experience and it definitely helped me," said Jeremiah, 19, who has since started a graphic design business, launched a clothing line and is working on developing a social learning network targeting college students.
"The mentors spoke to us about everything," Jeremiah said. "It was a program for anyone who wanted to have an honest conversation."