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The Best of B.E.S.T.

The school year is winding down, but there’s always plenty of work to be done at B.E.S.T. Academy at Benjamin S. Carson. The faculty and staff always have their hands full trying to motivate and inspire students at the all-male Atlanta Public School. Ninth is currently the highest grade, but the ultimate goal is to expand through 12th by 2013.

B.E.S.T. is an acronym standing for Business, Engineering, Science and Technology, which is the focus of the curriculum at the sprawling $30 million school named in honor of Carson, a renowned African-American neurosurgeon. Students are immersed in a rigorous academic curriculum, which includes language arts, social studies, reading, math and science.

B.E.S.T. was initiated by Atlanta Public Schools based on the research of New York Times bestselling author, business consultant and social philosopher Michael Gurian, who asserts that girls and boys have different learning styles. As a result, B.E.S.T teachers employ teaching strategies that are geared toward the general learning styles of boys.

School leaders admit there are plenty of obstacles. The fact that more than 90 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch speaks to the economic challenges in the surrounding community, but there is also plenty of evidence of progress. In the 2009-2010 school year, the school met its Annual Yearly Progress projections and for the first time it was removed from the school system’s “needs improvement list.”

Here’s a behind the scenes look at the school during our visit.

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Child Advocates React To AG Holder’s Juvenile Justice Reform Call

Local child advocates are reacting favorably to United States Attorney General Eric Holder’s recent comments about the dire need for major juvenile justice system reform.

In remarks to the National Association of Counties Legislative Conference, Holder called for the Department of Justice to adopt a new approach that combines evidence-based research and comprehensive community partnerships. Holder also said that it’s time for us to ask some important questions such as; why is it that African-American youth make up 16 percent of the overall youth population, but comprise more than half of the juvenile population arrested for committing a violent crime?  Why is it that abused and neglected children are 11 times more likely than their non-abused and non-neglected peers to be arrested for criminal behavior?   And why is that so many of those who enter our juvenile justice system either can’t afford – or do not know to ask for – access to legal guidance?   Some even plead guilty to criminal offenses without the advice of a lawyer. Read the full speech.
Some of the points Holder made in the March 7 address include:

  • Serving our young people makes good economic sense by keeping them out of “over-stressed and under-funded corrections facilities and saving precious law enforcement resources.”
  • How we treat our children speaks to who we are as a nation.
  • It’s time to broaden our approach to juvenile justice – and to ensure that sound research and respected analysis are a part of our decision-making process.
  • We must transition from a prosecution-and-punishment model to a prevention-and-intervention paradigm.
  • We must adopt a comprehensive plan of action – one that engages law-enforcement partners, medical professionals, social services providers, lawyers, parents, teachers, coaches, mentors and community leaders.
  • We as a nation must be smart, not just tough, on crime to help generate the positive outcomes we seek for our young people.
  • Juvenile justice reform will also save the nation money in the long run.*The best—and most targeted—solutions will be shared solutions, "created together—after rigorous scientific evaluation and innovative resource levering."
  • Evidence on our nation’s juvenile justice system demonstrates that change is needed because the current system does not spend resources as wisely as it should.
  • Even though many of those who are incarcerated enter the juvenile justice system for non-violent offences, they often emerge violent – or, at the very least – traumatized.
  • Each year too many of the 100,000 young people who exit formal custody have nowhere to go, return to unstable homes or end up in shelters, on the streets, or in other potentially dangerous or violent situations.
  • Many juveniles who leave the system are not welcomed back to their community school and struggle to find educational opportunities.
  • Juvenile justice reform must become a nationwide effort to bring systemic, not incremental, reform to our justice system.

Here’s what some local leaders and child advocates had to say about Holder’s comments.

Sen. Jones

Emanuel D. Jones, State Senator (D-Decatur)

“The attorney general spoke very powerful words regarding our system of Juvenile Justice. I agree with his call to action and we can do better by our kids. The system is broken and too many poor and children of color are being unfairly punished in a system that lacks accountability of their efforts to rehabilitate detained children. Our system of juvenile justice is broken and anytime institutions are allowed to profit off youth detention, justice is compromised. We need to remove this yoke from around lady justice' s neck and allow meaningful reform in our juvenile justice system. Alternatives to incarceration are available and I believe the Departments of Juvenile Justice must be given greater flexibility to rehabilitate children to include the authority to parole children in youth detention centers.“

Tanya Culbreth, Home-School Parent Liaison, B.E.S.T. Academy (an all-male Atlanta public middle and high school)

Culbreth

“We treat our children as sub-standard human beings -- not as human beings who can succeed -- and get sub-standard results. I agree that we need to implement more intervention and prevention methods on the front end and not the back end with prisons and detention centers.  I also agree with the attorney general that it is time for major reform. This system is clearly not working. We need to look at where we are spending our resources. Working at an all black-male Atlanta Public School, his comments really resonate. He’s right about the racial disparities. The answer to this lies in the answer to the question; how do we engage a population that feels so disconnected? These young men come from families that also feel disconnected from mainstream society. They feel like the odds are stacked against them. The school-to-prison-pipeline is real. By cutting education spending and investing into prisons we are grooming our kids to go right into the prison system. Now many schools are merely teaching our kids how to past the standardized test. After that the teachers don’t have time or the energy left to explore, inspire and encourage the students.  No Child Left Behind did just the opposite of the stated intent; No Child Left Behind has left everybody behind!”

Judge Teske

Steve Teske, Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge

“This past November I delivered a keynote speech at a conference in Washington D.C. sponsored by the Department of Justice on juvenile justice.  Attorney General Holder made introductory remarks to my keynote speech.  He shared the same information.  My speech supported what he said.  It is time we re-invent the juvenile justice system using evidence-based practices.  However, evidence-based practices must include a system that is multi-disciplinary and supports evidence-based programs that effectively restore youth.  Effective programs are only effective in practice when all stakeholders work together.”

Chara Jackson, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia Legal Director

Jackson

“I am very pleased with what Attorney General Holder said. His comments speak to exactly what we’re trying to do in Georgia with SB 127, the juvenile code rewrite, led by JUST Georgia and other stakeholder groups. His comments really show people who have been committed to juvenile justice for years that we all really are on the same page. I think with the passage of the code rewrite in Georgia can be at the forefront of change in the juvenile justice system. Hopefully we are close to getting this measure approved in the Georgia Senate.”

Viveca Famber-Powell, Atlanta Defense Attorney

“I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Holder.  I have worked as a defense attorney for almost 30 years with much of that time defending and advocating for children charged with offenses from ungovernable to murder.  At every level, incarceration is a tool that is always used too quickly.  This is especially so in the most serious cases where the imposition of minimum mandatory 10 and 25 year prison sentences for children as young as 13 in cases where there is no loss of life or even injury is a routine occurrence in Georgia.  These expensive prison dollars can be more efficiently, economically and successfully spent on supervision and services for more children. These services are already in place and work and can be shown empirically to be successful on most children, even in serious cases.  The $180,000 it costs to keep a young offender in prison 10 years on an armed robbery can educate 45 boys in the public school for a year.  If there is any way to avoid spending that $180,000 on one child, we should try it.  There is ample research already to show that young offenders here can be rehabilitated, monitored and supervised in the community at a cost far less than the close to $500,000 per child it would cost to imprison that same child for 25 years as current law mandates. Crime and punishment is not what we should aspire to when we talk about children in the criminal justice system.  The better identifier would be mistake and correction.”

B.E.S.T. Men: Atlanta’s All-Male Academy Seeks To Close Achievement Gap

From the moment they greet us with broad smiles and outstretched hands it is clear that Jabari Booker and Mykael Riley – our tour guides for the morning – take their duties very seriously. The seventh graders enthusiastically embrace principal LaPaul Shelton’s request to show us around their school.

Seventh graders Jabari Booker and Mykael Riley.

One thing is immediately apparent: Neither of these 12-year-olds, with their closely-cropped hair and spectacles perched on their noses fit the stereotypical images of young black males that often pervade in mainstream media and popular culture. Both are thriving academically, have never had any run-ins with the law and have great relationships with their fathers. Many of their classmates at B.E.S.T. Academy, a single-gender Atlanta Public School with a student body comprised entirely of black boys, aren’t so fortunate.

“Some students have emotional issues based on their past and the fact that they don’t know their father,” says Mykael. “In some cases they never knew him or their father may have died or was killed. Here there are a lot of male teachers who can relate to them like a father; they’re basically like a father who cares for his children and wants them to be great.”

Jabari agrees.

The plethora of African-American male teachers on the faculty help serve as positive male role models for students.

“A lot of the kids here don’t have access to positive male role models, but the teachers here care about us and want to help show us how to be men,” he says. “Some of the kids around here act up, but the teachers really care. A teacher isn’t just going to say that you failed a test; they want to help you succeed. This is a place where you can ask for help.”

The demographics of the northwest Atlanta community off Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway (formerly known as Bankhead Highway) where the school is located, provide a snapshot of what administrators are up against daily. More than 90 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch. According to research by the American Physical Society, of nearly 29,000 residents in the nearby area:

  • 41 percent have less than a high school education
  • 10 percent are unemployed
  • 51 percent are not part of the labor force
  • 51 percent of children are being raised by grandparents.

The data is daunting, but administrators say they’re up for the challenge.

LaPaul Shelton is in his second school year as principal.

“We try to create an environment where it’s not all about pointing a finger at them, because a lot of the problems these young men face have to do with the neighborhood and environment that they are living in,” says Shelton of the economically challenged community often referenced in rap songs. “They live in a place where it’s okay to wear your pants sagging and to handle things in a violent way. We’re trying to change those behaviors; we’re trying to change a mindset.”

Although administrators agree that the past few years have had its shares of challenges, there is concrete evidence that Shelton’s approach is working. In the 2009-2010 school year, the school met its Annual Yearly Progress projections and for the first time it was removed from the school system’s “needs improvement list.”

“We’re working to build upon that success; it’s a daily practice,” says Shelton, now in his second term as principal.

Teacher Alva Hartry says changing negative behaviors is mostly achieved through providing students with critical support and positive reinforcement.

Classroom instruction is supplemented by an array of extracurricular activities including chorus, band, orchestra, art, computer technology, football, basketball, debate, robotics and baseball.

“This is probably one of the few places where our young African-American males are being recognized for their achievements,” she says. “We always tell the students, ‘you need to be supportive of each other.’”

Mykael and Jabari’s pride in their school is apparent as they stroll the halls. They grin and giggle as they share the specs of the sprawling $30 million facility and rattle off details about the different personalities of the teachers. Not so surprisingly, school lunch gets a thumbs down as merely “edible” and although they embrace the all-male environment they agree that having female classmates would be a lot more fun. They both concur that B.E.S.T. is, well, the best place for them to learn and prepare for prosperous futures.

Inspirational quotes such as “part of success is preparation on purpose” and “if there is no struggle there is no progress” line the walls, serving as subliminal reminders of the school’s mission “to prepare our students to enter into a four-year institution of higher learning as they transform into the B.E.S.T. Men.” Pennants posted around bearing the names of universities like Brown, Princeton, Georgia-Tech and Clark Atlanta University highlight the college preparatory curriculum.

B.E.S.T. Academy at Benjamin S. Carson, named in honor of the renowned African-American neurosurgeon, opened in a temporary building in August of 2007. It moved to the new facility in the summer of 2009. B.E.S.T. is an acronym for Business, Engineering, Science, and Technology, which is the focus of the curriculum. The school began with sixth grade and a grade has been added every year since. Ninth is currently the highest grade, but the ultimate goal is to expand to 12th by 2013.

B.E.S.T. was initiated by Atlanta Public Schools based on the research of New York Times bestselling author, business consultant and social philosopher Michael Gurian, who asserts that girls and boys have different learning styles. To this effect, teachers at B.E.S.T. employ teaching strategies that are geared toward the general learning styles of boys. The students are immersed in a rigorous academic curriculum, which includes language arts, social studies, reading, math and science. Classroom instruction is supplemented by an array of extracurricular activities including chorus, band, orchestra, art, computer technology, foreign languages, football, basketball, track and field, debate, robotics and baseball.

B.E.S.T. is located in northwest Atlanta off Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway, formerly known as Bankhead Highway.

Being single gender is not exclusively what makes B.E.S.T. Academy unique. The prevalence of male teachers makes it a standout too – clearly a direct response to the critical need for male role models for a student body that overwhelmingly hails from single-parent households.

“The female teachers will sometimes baby some of the students, but the male teachers are hard on us sometimes,” says Jabari. “They know that we need more male role models and they’re tough in order to let us know that acting up is not right.”

The school operates in partnership with the 100 Black Men of Atlanta, Morehouse College, the Atlanta Falcons and other community organizations featuring prominent and professionally successful African-American men. Emory University, along with non-profits such as the Be Proactive Foundation, Pro Active Management, Greening Youth Foundation and Visions Unlimited, are also among the academy’s community  partners.

Teachers are charged with closing the massive achievement gap that exists nationwide and in metro Atlanta among young black males. Many teachers stay late weekdays working one-on-one with students, there are regular Wednesday tutorial sessions and Saturday morning school takes place twice monthly. The ultimate objective, administrators say, is to cultivate the academic, social and emotional growth of each student.

B.E.S.T. was initiated by Atlanta Public Schools based on the gender-based education research of author, business consultant and social philosopher Michael Gurian.

“The changes that we seek to make require time and energy,” says Shelton, a husband and father of a young daughter and son. “It’s about building a relationship with these boys; that relationship does not end at 4 p.m. Fortunately we have an amazingly supportive and committed staff.”

The school also aims to address the wide array of student needs, including providing a monthly awards ceremony to highlight student achievement and providing weekly counseling sessions for students dealing with emotional challenges. Special classes, including one called “Poems Over Pistols” led by former Atlanta radio personality Fernando "Pezo" Johnson and Capitol Records executive Ric Ross, encourage students to share their personal experiences through writing poetry and raps.

“The best thing about B.E.S.T. is the leadership at the school,” says Home-School Parent Liaison Tanya Culbreth. “We try to do things here that are out of the box. We provide mental health support and our Meeting of the Minds awards ceremony doesn’t just recognize the accomplishments of the top five percent of students. We award them all for meeting goals and we try to give everyone a fair opportunity to lead and take ownership in the school.”

Jabari says the specialized environment makes a major difference.

Students Jabari and Mykael say the male teachers are often tough on them in an effort to help them learn and grow into successful men.

“My other school had students that are the same race as me and some from different countries like China, Japan and African countries, but this environment has more to do with me [as a young black male],” he notes. “I’m able to connect with the students here better. We have a lot more in common; we have a lot of the same issues and problems.”

Shelton says he aspires for 2011 to be another stellar year for B.E.S.T.

“We’ll just take it day by day try to reach as many young men as we can.”

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Got a juvenile justice story idea? Contact JJIE.org staff writer Chandra R. Thomas at cthom141@kennesaw.edu. Thomas, a former Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow and Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow, is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Fox 5 News in Atlanta and Atlanta, People and Essence magazines.

Neighborhood Summit Cries Out for Change: Community Gets Blunt About Teen Crime & School Problems

Low graduation rates and a teen crime spree in Atlanta brought more than 100 community leaders and concerned citizens together for the Strengthening Families and Communities Summit Thursday.

“We need to give love and support to these kids and educate them that anything is possible,” said Evelyn Wynn-Dixon, Mayor of Riverdale, Ga. She was part of a town hall meeting and her words became a theme for the day.

Pamela Perkins, ICM Coordinator of the Interfaith Children’s Movement, led the School Dropout Prevention workshop, where she and other attendees got candid about the problems.

“This has to start with community support,” Perkins said. “We have got to come together and make a cohesive effort to help these children succeed in school and graduate.”

The Georgia Department of Education reports the state graduation rate at 75.4 percent. Perkins maintains a more accurate picture comes from tracking 9th graders and looking at how many of them actually graduate. That number is much lower: 57.8 percent.

Emotions ran high as people talked about why they think kids are dropping out. Their observations differ from what you might hear from official sources:

  • Families need to get more involved.
  • Educators need more training to understand the neighborhoods that kids come from and the challenges they may be dealing with.
  • The community needs to be more aware of how bad the problem is.
  • Parents need support so they can help their kids with schoolwork.

“Kids come to the schools with problems,” said Tanya Lee Culbreth, parent liaison of B.E.S.T. Academy. “Teachers and administrators need to do more to learn about what’s going on in these kids’ lives because once those issues are put aside, a child can succeed.” Some said that when kids quit school they get into more trouble on the street.

Perkins wants to see policy changes that focus on helping younger children. “It’s been proven that by the age of three, 90 percent of a child’s brain function has been developed,” Perkins said. She advocates pre-kindergarten programs for 3-year-olds as well as after-school programs to boost student achievement.

The School Dropout Prevention Committee of Strengthening Families and Communities plans to propose new legislation and is looking for government support on two fronts: improving zero tolerance laws to further protect children and reforming federal and state funding programs to increase the number of quality after school curriculums.

The summit also looked at teen pregnancy prevention, youth violence prevention and financial literacy/economic development and how to get families more involved in helping children to be successful.

Violence Forum Unites Teens, Experts

A scarlet red electric guitar would normally seem out of place at a youth violence forum, but Monday evening the bloodstained instrument served as a symbolic reminder of a young man’s life cut short.

Eighteen-year-old Blake Jimerson clutched it in homage to his fallen friend Katerius “Terry” Moody throughout the “Just Squash It” Emergency Town Hall Meeting, an event prompted in part by the murder of the Benjamin E. Mays High School graduate on June 26th at an East Point block party. The 18-year-old crooner was fatally shot during an impromptu performance; four other teens were wounded.

“This is the last thing Terry had on him before he died,” Jimerson, a recent Washington High School graduate, told the audience of more than 100 about his friend who had planned to enlist in the U.S. Marines next month. “The blood is still on it.”

The meeting at B.E.S.T. Academy, an all-male middle school in Northwest Atlanta, was touted as an opportunity for Metro Atlanta youth -- and those who work directly with them -- to come together to propose solutions. Nearly two dozen young people sat on the stage alongside adult panelists, a mix of representatives from the court system, government agencies and non-profit youth organizations. Organizers took comments and questions from the audience. Attendees also had the opportunity to share their thoughts via short survey forms that organizers say will eventually be compiled into a report to be shared with local policy makers and elected officials.

Fourteen year-old Kasadera Todd says the event lived up to its billing.

“I think it turned out great; everyone’s voice got heard,” he said. “I hope the politicians are listening so that they can go back to their office with ideas on ways to help the community.”

Byron Watkins could relate to the topic. Watkins, now a Boy Scout at B.E.S.T., says he and his mother relocated to Atlanta from California to evade violence.

“I’m only 14 years old and I was stabbed,” said Watkins, “People don’t believe me when I say that I have been stabbed before but it’s true. I learned a lot tonight about how parents should act. Parents need to take the lead more with their kids.”

Parent Margaret McBride, who attended with her daughter Sydnee, was equally pleased with the outcome.

“I think this can be the start of a movement to protect our kids from violence,” she said, “I was moved by what I heard; specially the passion I heard from the kids.”

More cohesiveness among youth organizations, implementing strategies to improve communication between parents and children, expanded mentoring programs and brainstorming on ways for well-meaning adults to become more approachable to the youth they serve were among the many solutions suggested at the event that lasted more than two hours.

Untreated mental health issues and limited educational opportunities were among the reasons cited as the root causes of youth violence, along with unaddressed emotions related to chronic poverty, lack of parental involvement, physical/mental abuse and an overall lack of community support.

“Violence is the same as teen pregnancy, teen abortion and low educational attainment – it’s just a symptom of a bigger problem,” said panelist Dr. Eddie Morris, founder and president of Men of Destiny, a non-profit organization that enhances the educational experiences of African-American children. “A lot of these kids [who are violent] are angry because they’re born into poverty; some of them are angry because they don’t have a relationship with their parents, some are angry because they were molested. We need to talk to our kids and tell them that they were born with a purpose in this world.”

Panelist Ruby Thomas, a juvenile judge pro tem in DeKalb County, feels video games contribute to the problem.

“Video games desensitize you from the reality of injuring somebody, never to be seen again,” she said. “We can’t control our kids, but we can support them.”

Organizer Tanya Culbreth, the home-school parent liaison for B.E.S.T.,  says she coordinated the event as a follow up to the town hall meeting Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed called, following a recent outbreak of teen violence during the popular Screen On The Green event at Atlanta’s Piedmont Park.  She felt that forum did not include the voices of enough young people and adults who run youth organizations.

Culbreth says she’s optimistic that Monday’s event will help mobilize and inspire members of the community to get more involved with preventing youth violence. “This is not the end [of the dialogue],” she said. “This is only the beginning.”

____________________________

Chandra R. Thomas is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Atlanta Magazine and Fox 5 Atlanta. She has also served as a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow at Atlanta’s Carter Center and as a Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow at The Ohio State University.

Teen’s Murder Prompts Town Hall Meeting

Eighteen-year-old Katerius Moody was in the midst of belting out a verse of the song he’d penned with fellow Polo Boys singing group members, when bullets peppered the crowd during their performance three weeks ago at an East Point block party. The young crooner, a recent Mays High School graduate, was gunned down and four other teens were wounded before he could finish the lyrics to “We Go.”

The June 26th tragedy, and others like it, have inspired an Atlanta community leader to call an emergency town hall meeting Monday, where she says “frontline” child services workers, local leaders and, more importantly, young people themselves, will get to suggest ways to curb youth violence in metro Atlanta. Atlanta Public Schools staffer Tanya Culbreth contends Moody’s death and a recent outbreak of teen violence during the popular Screen On The Green event at Atlanta’s Piedmont Park inspired her to coordinate the event. Culbreth says she wasn’t satisfied with the outcome of a similar town hall meeting Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed called following the Piedmont Park incident.

Tanya Culbreth organized Monday's “Squash It” Emergency Town Hall Meeting.

“I applaud the mayor for calling an emergency meeting, but there wasn’t enough representation there from young people and those of us who work directly with young people every day,” contends Culbreth, the Home-School Parent Liaison for B.E.S.T. Academy, an all-male middle school  in Northwest Atlanta. “We’re the experts and more of our voices need to be heard. We just walked away (from the meeting) feeling like there needed to be more conversation.”

The response has been overwhelming, she says, to the event, slated for 6-8 p.m. Monday at B.E.S.T. Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, community activist Brenda Muhammad and famed civil rights activist Al Sharpton’s brother Kenneth Glascow are among the scheduled  participants. Organizers will also circulate surveys asking input from the audience on ways to alleviate the violence problem. The findings will be compiled into a comprehensive report that will be submitted to local policy makers.

“It’s about time we hear from the kids who live in the communities affected by this violence every day,” says event moderator Erik Underwood. “This is an opportunity for them to speak to the community, elected officials and policy makers. We need to stop talking about what we need to do and take the suggestions made and implement them. This is going to be great; there’s going to be a lot of good to come from this.”

Shooting victim Moody’s best friend and bandmate Anthony Ray, 18, of Southwest Atlanta’s Adamsville community, also plans to address the audience.

“For me it took losing my best friend to see that this violence cannot continue; we don’t need anymore people hurt or killed like this,” he says. “I want (young) people to realize that violence is not the way to go.”

Culbreth says the event will emphasize solutions to youth violence; not the problems.

Adds Ray of his friend, who was scheduled to join the U.S. Marines with him next month. “It hurts me to lose him; we were so close,” he says.  “The outcome has been all positive though because him dying is bringing people together.”

The “Squash It” Emergency Town Hall Meeting is Monday July 19, 6-8 p.m. at B.E.S.T. Academy, 1890 Donald Lee Hollowell Pkwy., Atlanta, Ga. 30318.

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Chandra R. Thomas is an award-winning multimedia journalist who has worked for Atlanta Magazine and Fox 5 Atlanta. She has served as a Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow at Atlanta's Carter Center and as a Kiplinger Public Affairs Journalism Fellow at The Ohio State University.