The Mahaffey Theater was the scene of honored accomplishment on Friday night as 33 Write Field graduates shared a rite of passage before a packed house of family members, mentors, educators, sponsors and friends.
The middle school and high school students, all male minority graduates, donned tuxedos, marched in to an African drum line and were honored for their meritorious work following a nine-month academic enrichment and mentoring program.
Keynote speaker Jay Harris, ESPN’s SportsCenter anchor, challenged the group to consider the importance of their life choices both over the summer and throughout their young lives.
The graduates are the latest class to complete The Write Field, a program that has its beginnings in 2011. In that year, the nation turned its attention to St. Petersburg and the murders of three police officers, one of them by a 16-year-old boy. At about the same time, a report found Pinellas County, Florida, had one of the nation’s highest dropout rates among black male students.
Poynter and several community partners, including the Tampa Bay Rays Foundation, Wells Fargo and Blue Cross Blue Shield, responded with an innovative new program focusing on minority boys. Poynter launched the pilot program, bringing 27 African-American and Hispanic middle school boys to the institute on Saturdays to work on their writing, their character development and, in the end, their confidence and prospects for success.
For 10 Saturdays starting in September, the 33 boys, 7 junior mentors (graduates of the program) and 12 community mentors (police officers, teachers, local journalists, professionals and businessmen) gathered at Poynter for breakfast. It’s an integral start to the day since 90 percent of the students are on free or reduced lunch at school. After the meal, I, as the senior mentor, and up to two Poynter faculty members launch a rigorous day of learning.
The writing lessons focus on research, language, writing and reading. Typically, Poynter prompts the students to write in this way: see something, hear something, do something, write about it. One week, the group listened to three National Public Radio stories. The boys then deconstructed the interviews, with a visitor from NPR explaining the interviewing process: who the characters were, the context and the conclusions. Then the students wrote about similar challenges they faced in their lives, and they interviewed each other.
The character lessons emphasize respect, responsibility, restraint and teamwork. Group leaders incorporate the lessons into each workshop through activities, one-on-one conversations and role-playing. One example: a group role-played how to conduct themselves when someone is trying to harm them – how to stay safe and show appropriate restraint. This is an important lesson for the young people whose culture so often emphasizes retaliation.
After the morning teaching, the group participates in a “Let’s Move” activity. The boys stretch, get some fresh air and learn about physical fitness. At one session, a trainer from the Tampa Bay Rays, a program sponsor, taught the boys stretching routines they could do at home, then talked about the importance of proper nutrition and sleep habits. The nutrition lessons are paying off. One week, a boy asked the mayor of St. Petersburg why there were so few vegan eating options in downtown St. Pete. “That’s a great question,” Mayor Rick Kriseman said, adding it was something he was working on.
The afternoon sessions feature another presentation and a personal essay exercise. The boys write about something they’ve treasured and lost. Then participants review and evaluate the lessons learned that day. Poynter dismisses the group at 2:45 p.m., giving each boy a $20 honorarium, if they earn it. This honorarium rewards the boys for their successful participation and often helps them pay transportation costs such as bus fare or gas expenses.
For information about the program, email me, Kenny Irby, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this story credited Poynter for the photo above. It was taken by Boyzell Hosey of Tampa Bay Times.