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School Advocate Program a Ray of Hope

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Michael Thibodeaux, a sophomore at Gompers Secondary School, an experimental African-American Pupil Advocate Program of San Diego city schools has brought an improved campus atmosphere.

“Last year you could walk by Room 7, the in-school suspension room, and it would normally be filled with black males,” Thibodeaux told a crowded school board auditorium on Tuesday. “This year, half the room is always empty,” he said, crediting advocate Doug Williams with counseling black students not only about African-American culture and self-esteem, but also about how to work with others on homework assignments and other academic matters to raise their prospects.

Thibodeaux’s comments had a telling effect on district trustees as they heard an update on the advocate effort, which began in earnest about a year ago in response to data both locally and nationwide that show African-American males are far more likely to end up in prison than in college.

Among the sobering data presented to trustees Tuesday by their evaluation department were figures showing that 60% of all black seventh-grade males in the district were suspended at least once during 1989-90--three times higher than the district average. In addition, only 3.5% of all the district’s black male high school graduates--their ranks already thinned by the 30% who drop out by grade 12--qualified for University of California admission in 1989-90, contrasted with 40% of all district students.

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But the report brought out an angry audience of black parents and community leaders--and Thibodeaux and several of his peers from area schools as well--who objected to the link drawn between the discouraging statistics and the first year of the pupil advocate program, which operates at two elementary schools, Fulton and Knox, and at Gompers and Bell Junior High.

“A lot of people find that this document critiques in an unfair manner,” Assistant Supt. Al Cook told trustees in an unusual public criticism of a district department. “The advocates only really started meeting with their students in January, and this evaluation started in February and ended in May. Given the magnitude of the problem we face (with black males), is it fair or realistic to expect progress in one to four months?”

Supt. Tom Payzant conceded the point made by Cook and others, saying the report’s data should be considered only a base from which to measure progress over at least three years.

Students from all four schools gave testimonials to benefits they already saw in the program, which brings black students together with a black advocate in both formal and informal counseling and academic sessions. Many students, particularly those from single-parent homes, have come to look upon the advocates, who all are men, as surrogate fathers, students and community leaders said Tuesday.

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“Mr. Williams meets with us at least once a week and talks about how to become better academically,” Thibodeaux said during an interview. “We don’t want to be seen as people always being suspended. Mr. Williams helps teachers to keep from putting boundaries in front of us; he helps us not only study but work together better as a group. In my own case, I used not to want to do homework but play Nintendo instead.”

Knox sixth-grader Willie Carter credited advocate Leonard Thompson with helping him learn about African history. “If you know your history, you know your greatness,” Carter said Thompson has drummed into him and his peers.

A sixth-grade teacher at Knox, Chuck DiSilvo, said students in the program have “shown an increase in self-esteem that translates into better performance in the classroom.

“You can see a spark in the eyes which I haven’t seen for years,” DiSilvo said. “The kids also now think before acting, they think about what the advocate has said, and, in social studies, I see much more of an interest because they have a historical perspective.”

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But, although the anecdotal recitations inspired hope among board members, they could not totally mask the statistical gloom painted by the evaluation department, although trustees agreed there can be no cause and effect drawn between the program and the data.

“I’m very concerned that we don’t set up objectives for programs that couldn’t possibly be met initially,” new board member John De Beck said. “I was very negative after reading this report, but after hearing the testimony, I believe that I have seen progress.”

“We’re not going to see as much change as we hope even after three years because of the damage that has been done” to black males for years, board president Shirley Weber said. “There is a sad, sad state of affairs regarding the African-American male.”

Weber herself placed her fourth-grade son in a private school this year with a focus on black achievement because “of what you see in reports like this . . . of the realities that (black males) face.”

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And, although Weber said that programs such as the pupil advocate need to be expanded, she also said the district must work as much with teachers to change attitudes. Even if class sizes were reduced from 30 to 20 students, black males would still face problems unless teachers learned to work better with African-Americans, Weber said.

“In many ways it is a racial issue with regard to school and society,” she said.

The board Tuesday also endorsed a proposal to send 300 black students to one week of a special summer camp at Camp Marston near Julian next year. Former board member Kay Davis has raised $25,000 of the needed $50,000 to send the students, along with their pupil advocates and other committed teacher-volunteers, for a structured one-week session intended to reinforce self-esteem and other values for greater academic discipline.


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