By Dwight Hobbes
Chronic, long-endured educational disparities in Minnesota and, for that matter, across the U.S. continue to plague African American youth in a steadily worsening quandary that, despite programs like the No Child Left Behind Act, shows no sign of being solved and every indication of growing still worse.
Wesley Smith and his High School Hook-Up offers peer mentoring as one constructive response to this abysmal condition.
It’s hard enough to do anything about the scores of Black children and adolescents who are warehoused in over-crowded classrooms, moved along and finally disgorged via social promotion, landing in life without the skill to do a great deal more than flip burgers and dunk fries at McBurger Thing. And between competing, similarly underserved Mexican American kids and the national house-of-cards economy, even those jobs aren’t a lock.
Since the outlook is dim to hopeless for many Black students to manage graduation from high school, consider the prospects for those who don’t complete that much education. Completing high school is, of course, a minimum requirement for nine jobs out of 10. The only “college” a dropout can enter and graduate is euphemistically referred to as the penitentiary.
To wit, the rate at which younger and younger Black males are being locked up for turning to criminal enterprise such as peddling crack cocaine. Studies document at length that, even when they avoid illegal activity, unskilled young adults with low education are virtually consigned to live in poverty and sit around on welfare, subsisting off the sweat of working taxpayers’ brows.
Enter “High School Hook-Up — Turning Drop-Outs into Drop-Ins,” an initiative founded, spearheaded and sustained by educational activist Wesley Smith. Smith steps in to shoulder an unenviable task, salvaging and empowering youngsters the educational system in particular and society in general have simply discarded.
His objective? To get students off the street, out of trouble, and diverted from a dead-end existence. To get them back in school. “In 2006,” he says, “I started providing enrollment support services, recruiting, for charter, alternative, private and higher learning schools and institutions in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The students who were targeted were mostly K through eight.”
Along with intervening for youth whose idle hands were, as the saying goes, doing the devil’s work, Smith notes, “During the course of this time that I was connecting with parents and students, I would always run across high school dropouts who were either working, hanging out, or discouraged about school for one reason or another.
“I found that their issues were from minor to extreme and started talking to them about re-enrolling in school,” Smith recalls. “For the most part their issues for dropping out in the first place, combined with the loss of time, had become a pretty tough opponent.”
Smith claims a qualified background to tackle this considerable task. He has “worked for Minneapolis Public Schools and charter schools in the capacities of special education assistant, behavioral specialist, teacher’s aide, and after-school teacher for over 12 years. I [have] attended many workshops and conferences and received [extensive] training. [I am] a motivational speaker and outreach specialist who takes the pulse of the community to determine what is being done and what [can be done].”
He adds, “After doing a lot of research on No Child Left Behind…I started to consult with students who were in school as well as dropouts about goals and objectives as well as barriers and issues on a regular basis.” Expounding on issues that obstruct such youth, Smith cites poor self-esteem and impatience. After all, what teen doesn’t struggle with self-esteem and impatience with life itself?
None of which was helped by being shoveled into a ramshackle educational system. Smith also notes a malady all too common to dysfunctional families — adolescents who can’t get along with what’s going on at home. For instance, “Living with a friend because the student does not like the parent’s partner.”
Another scenario is when “drugs and/or gang lifestyle have dominated this young person’s life. Mental and chemical health are tops on the list.”
Smith takes it on himself to look after High School Hook-Up charges. “My follow-up consists of showing up at the school and checking in with students informally. I am a self-appointed truant officer.”
Smith recounts, fundamental, hands-on experience: “Once I was to do a presentation to gang members. They met me and told me to leave my car and had someone to watch it for me. They blindfolded me and took me to a place where all the young guys were wearing scarves around their faces, revealing only their eyes.
“The leader wanted me to tell them about the two years of free college they could get when they complete high school and if dropout students who re-enrolled could receive this benefit. They were real nice to me, and when they drove me back to my car, they said, ‘Thank you’ and…told me that it’s about time that somebody came real,” Smith says.
Not every youngster was a success story. “However, as a result of turning students who were in school into peer mentors, six students re-enrolled into school. Some did not return to their home school, and two of the students who were 20 enrolled into GED.”
Word of mouth about pursuing academic well-being via High School Hook-Up spread. “I got a phone call from a young man who didn’t even say hello. He said, ‘Hey is you the dude that can hook me up back into high school?’”
What, one might wonder, moved Wesley Smith to establish the High School Hook-Up? “Of all of the programs that [purported] to serve youth,” he responds, “I saw that no one was coming after the ones who dropped out of school, and [saw] that it is a win-win scenario to re-enroll these kids back in school.”
Smith goes on to specify, “I wanted to provide a service the results [of which] benefit the individual seeking the service. When you tell a young person to pull up his pants or stop selling drugs or stop hanging out, then they turn to you and say, ‘Okay then, what do I do?’ There [are] no jobs for them, and they have the healthy suspicion of older folks who have made them promises in the past and failed them.
“I give them one guarantee, and that is, ‘The more you become educated, the better decisions you will make for yourself.’”
Minneapolis and St. Paul, it goes without saying, are by no means alone with regard to burgeoning populations of young people whose dire need for education is squarely matched by institutionalized failure to provide same.
There’s an entire nation of neglected young minds. Accordingly, asked what his objectives concerning High School Hook-Up are, for both the near future and long range, Wesly Smith gives one answer: “I would like very much to establish this project as a program that becomes nationwide. To have more peer mentors and for them to get credit for reaching out to those who are academically challenged. The peers can be a valuable asset to the teaching system if applied the correct way.
“My immediate goal is to re-enroll 200 students. I am currently at 190 students re-enrolled and would like to accomplish [my] goal before the end of the year. I am getting ready to do some work in this area for the Louis James Foundation, and I am open to working with other agencies and corporations to enable [the second phase] of this much-needed body of work.”
This past June, High School Hook-Up — Turning Drop-Outs into Drop-Ins partnered with innovative Minneapolis’ West Metro Program Fair Schools. Smith is pleased with the results.
“Principal [Kevin] Bennett and I will meet for another collaboration. I am hoping to marry this effort with Minneapolis Public Schools and Saint Paul Public Schools to enable [the] effort to continue all year long as opposed to being [an] event.
“What you do to follow up is important. Retention is key. You [must] show continuity to continue.”
Dwight Hobbes welcomes reader responses to P.O. Box 50357, Mpls., 55403.