At-risk program contends with dwindling funds

by Jordan Green

Sophomore Fraizer Smith recently got in trouble at Dudley High School for skipping class by spending time at the park or the library. The perverse punishment for that infraction is, naturally, out-of-school suspension.

Instead of filling his suspension at home, he spent a recent Tuesday at New Light Missionary Baptist Church, across the street from Dudley, where Yvonne Hunt Perry — known as Mama to her students — runs an at-risk program for students receiving short-term, out-of-school suspension. The program includes a security check at 8:30 a.m., free breakfast and lunch, two academic sessions, an “empowerment hour” that includes everything from discussions about black history to computer technology, and a mentoring class. “I was going through one of those stages that I felt like I wasn’t going to make it,” Fraizer Smith said, explaining the reasons for his unexcused absences. “I didn’t have enough confidence in myself.” Smith said more than half the students at Dudley are involved with gangs. The temptation to join is omnipresent, and the allure obvious. “I would say seeing some of the nice things that people have,” Smith said. “They’ll wear a lot of flashy clothes.” It was his second time attending the New Light At Risk Intergenerational Outreach Program, making him a recurring student. Students like Smith present a mixed blessing for the program, whose students attend with a referral from the principal of the sending school and their parents’ permission. On one hand, his presence represents an endorsement because he finds the experience valuable. On the other, the whole point of the program is to nurture middle- and high-school students so that they’ll have fewer recurring suspensions. “We have more of an opportunity of reaching our goals,” said Smith, who hopes to become a computer engineer and technician. Sitting in the back of Magnus Rennie’s mentoring class, Smith raised his hand frequently, remained attentive and volunteered answers for many of the questions posed by the teacher. Rennie had asked the students — eight African- American boys; classes are segregated by gender — to make a list of both their good and bad habits. “Bad habits: I’m hard headed, I’ve got a smart mouth, anger,” he said. “Good habits: I’m a diligent worker, I’m open-minded, and I get a kick out of helping my younger siblings.” Rennie’s response was encouraging. “Some of your good habits outweigh your bad,” he said. “That’s something to think about. I have some of the same traits. Now, the bad habits, not to say that’s not crucial. But the good habits, that’s something about yourself you need to embrace.” Rennie set up role-playing scenarios. One involved hanging around friends hinting at plans to engage in mischief. One student volunteered that he would leave the bad crowd. “Come on, punk, why you trying to dip off?” Rennie said, playing the instigator. “All we trying to dois go get some product, pick it up, drop it off and come back here.”Later, he thrust a pile of green St. Patrick’s Day beads into AycockMiddle School sixth grader Hajji Johnson’s hands, demanding, “Here,hold onto this for me.” The boys were laughing, as Rennie confrontedthem with the dilemma. “You got something hot now. What are you goingto do?’ One of the students mumbled something about how thehypothetical goods were already in the person’s possession, so why notsell them? “The cops have already been called,” Rennie insisted.“They’re going to want to talk to you.” The simple message of thesession had been imparted, even if none of the students were willing toendorse the notion of snitching on friends: Bad habits and bad companyincrease the likelihood of jail time. Most but not all of the studentswho show up for the at-risk program are black, although some are white,Hispanic and Asian. Many are from group homes or families where one ormore of the biological parents are out of the picture. Othersare from wealthy families. Hunt Perry, a retired African-Americanteacher with a firm manner and a kind disposition, said she has noproblem dealing with white children. “The Caucasian kids havedifferent challenges,” she said. “The problem’s not respect. When theysee me, they settle right down. They do destructive stuff,mind-boggling things.” Students of both races favor have aproblem with skipping school. The director said she has a special wayof dealing with her African-American students, who are statisticallymore likely to be suspended and less likely to graduate from highschool in Guilford County. “I speak to them black to black,”Hunt Perry said. “I tell them: ‘It’s time out for you making excuses.You’re smart enough to be in a gang. Who’s going to be the nextBarack?’” Then she dropped the name of the district’s African-Americansuperintendent. “Who’s going to be the next Mo Green?” HuntPerry encourages every one of the students who come through theprogram’s door to call her “mama.” “I was thinking about the studentswho don’t have mamas,” she said. “I’ve always thought that childrenshould have more than one mama. If you have one, I’ll be the other. Ifyou don’t have one, I’ll be the one for you. There’s something peopledon’t understand about mothers. It’s innate that they care about theirchildren. That mother who’s on crack and the grandmother’skeeping her child, she still wants to be the best mother for her child.That’s why they go away, because they don’t want their child to seethem in that weak state.” The at-risk program served more than350 students in the 2007-2008 school year, according to its annualreport. Founded by the Rev. Cardes H. Brown Jr. in 2003, the program iscurrently functioning as a partnership between the church and GuilfordCounty Schools, and has received funding from United Way and the NCGovernor’s Crime Commission. “The concept of this program isfor my students to not come back,” Hunt Perry said. “In these times,students are in gangs and group homes, so this is a safe environment.The food is good. They like being here. When they get done, I tellthem: ‘Here is my cell phone number. Feel free to call me ifyou need anything.’ I started thinking: What could I do to deter themfrom coming back?” One tack Hunt Perry has used to reduce recidivism isoffering an after-school program focusing on mentorship andentrepreneurship to students who have been suspended no more than once.She acknowledges that it’s difficult to assess whether the at-riskprogram has affected the district’s suspension rate. The program’sannual report indicates that as many as 28 recurring suspensionstudents have been served in a given month, and 21.4 percent of itsstudents in the 2007- 2008 school year had received at least twosuspensions. “I don’t know that you will ever be able to showa cause and effect,” at-large Guilford County School Board member NancyRouth said. “Basically, what we’re trying to do is make sure if thesuspension occurs that there is a place where the student can go to gettheir work done so they don’t fall behind. At the high-school level, ifyou’re absent for two days, you have missed a considerable amount ofwork…. You can rationalize that if the student doesn’t get behind intheir work and they can earn course credit, that should have a positiveeffect.” She added, “We have not had a report on the programfor this year. We had a very good report at the end of last year, aboutthe positive things that they had accomplished that were beneficial forthe students and the district.” The district has announcedplans to trim $22 million from its 2009-2010 budget, citing a $7million reduction in funding to the district in Gov. Beverly Perdue’sproposed state budget, and a request from the Guilford CountyCommission to keep spending flat. About 60 percent of the district’sproposed cuts would come from central administration, but both schoolprincipals and autonomous program administrators are feeling theanxiety of the squeeze. The district has allocated $140,000 to theat-risk program for the 2008-2009 academic year. Budget numbersobtained from central administration show that as of March 16, theat-risk program had a balance of $29,245. With costs averaging $16,120per month, the program can be expected to run out of funding in lateApril, even as classes are scheduled to continue through June 15.“Obviously, there’s going to be anxiety for all our programs,” Routhsaid. “It’s going to be our responsibility to look at what are thingsthat must be maintained, and where can we find some savings.”