Oh, that every one of our high schools had a “AAA” (“African American Achievement”) Team. —LAF
The Capital Times
The only guy who can truly hold you back is the guy in the mirror,” cartoonist Robb Armstrong told a group of mostly male, mostly African-American students at La Follette High School on Tuesday.
He is the creator of the nationally syndicated comic strip JumpStart, which focuses on an African-American family and until recently ran in the Wisconsin State Journal. He was in Madison, speaking to members of the African-American Achievement Team, based at La Follette.
Armstrong grew up in a tough West Philadelphia neighborhood with his fiercely ambitious mother and four siblings.
An advocate for education who talks to over 5,000 students a year, Armstrong held his audience spellbound for about an hour as he talked about his family, his friends and the hard choices he had to make to pursue his passion as a cartoonist.
“Whatever you’re going to do, I suggest you get started,” he advised.
“I began to see life as short at a young age,” Armstrong said as he described the loss of his 13-year-old brother, who was dragged to death, caught in the doors of a subway train.
As Armstrong talked about the accusations he faced from his old neighborhood friends when he began taking school seriously, several in the audience nodded quietly in agreement.
Armstrong also told students that, for better or worse, Americans live in a youth-oriented corporate culture, and there are plenty of opportunities for young people with their heads screwed on straight.
“He’s real inspiring,” Markevius Burnett, 16, said after Armstrong finished. “No matter how many obstacles come in your life, you can overcome them by staying on track.”
Virgil Ward II asked Armstrong to draw his portrait.
“No, I’m not going to sell it. I’m going to keep it,” he laughed as he showed his friends the giant sheet of paper with his comic sketch.
Like Burnett and most of the other students in the audience, Ward is a member of the African-American Achievement Team, or the AAA Team.
“You have to be focused, and you have to know what you want,” Ward said. Since joining the group of about 30 core members of the AAA Team last semester, Ward said he was improving his attendance at school and focusing more on his grades.
“That’s cool. I want to help the younger guys coming up, try to help kids stand up, be successful and go for it, help them achieve,” he added.
The AAA Team is the result of a question Chad Wiese, dean of 11th-grade students at La Follette, posed last winter to Eric Summers, a local business leader involved with the 100 Black Men organization.
“He asked me, ‘Why are kids of color — especially African-American male students — doing so poorly in school?'” recalled Summers, a businessman and former professional basketball player from Greensboro, N.C., who moved to Madison in 2000.
The challenge of engaging African-American students, who are more likely to be truant, have a disproportionate number of disciplinary actions, lower achievement scores and higher drop-out rates than their white, Hispanic and Asian counterparts, captured Summers’ attention.
He contacted other participants in the 100 Black Men organization who could be inspiring role models and they invited all freshman and sophomore African-American boys at La Follette to attend a meeting to see if they would be interested in joining a group that focused on improving their commitment to school.
“The question is, ‘How can we make a difference in some of these children’s lives?'” he said.
Sean Storch, an English and alternative education teacher at La Follette, said he was impressed with the AAA Team’s results in just a semester.
“Some of these kids are very capable, and really, really bright, but they become bored and disengaged for any number of reasons. They didn’t see positive role models they could identify with,” Storch said. “It’s a great opportunity for those who are leaders to step out in front of the pack.”
When the AAA Team began meeting early in the spring semester, the discussions were frank and direct, and the adults asked some very pointed questions, Summers said.
“We asked them why they aren’t successful in school, and what obstacles they face. We also asked them how that made them feel. There were no right or wrong answers,” he said.
The students meet once a week, and have talked with community leaders including Police Chief Noble Wray, Robert Steele of Kraft Foods, Dr. Perry Henderson and Enis Ragland. Leaders from 100 Black Men mentor groups of about 10 boys.
With grades and attendance soaring among the participating students, Summers said teachers and administrators have been enormously supportive. In fact, planning is under way for the program to be expanded to other Madison high schools, beginning this fall.
Abdou Seye is 15 and a sophomore at La Follette whose actions and aptitude speak louder than words. In a semester, he went from a 2.0 grade point to a 4.0. He enjoys sports and will be running cross country this year.