Middle school mentoring program brings at-risk and model students together

For Warner Robins Middle School graduation coach Ernest Harvey, the pivotal moment of his academic career came in the eighth grade, thanks to the book “Flowers for Algernon.”

He read the novel as an assignment from his teacher — “Ms. Williams,” as Harvey remembers her — and was captivated by the book. His teacher went on to inspire him in a more lasting way, holding him to high academic standards in her class. Though Harvey recalls that he performed well on standardized tests and passed his classes up until that point, he said she pushed him to achieve more than just the bare minimum.

“She saw something special in me. She pulled that out of me.” Harvey said. “She opened my eyes to what being a successful student is all about.”

Harvey grew up as one of five children raised in a single-parent home by his mother in Cordele, and he went on to become an honors student at both Crisp County High School, where he graduated in 1990, and Fort Valley State University.

Based on his background, Harvey was urged by school counselor Karen Smith to turn his experiences into what has now become the Man-to-Man program at Warner Robins Middle. The program mentors a group of 20 eighth-grade boys, bringing together both at-risk and model students.

Somewhat reluctant to do so at first, Harvey is now leading the program into its fourth year.

“When I was young and in [the] situation, I didn’t realize I was poor, what void was in my life with my father not being there. My mom gave me all the love I could ask for,” Harvey said.

“The older you become, the more you realize the disparity between have and have-nots.”

Meeting 45 minutes once a week, the participants learn skills such as goal setting, leadership, respect for others and conflict resolution, through various activities such as group discussion sessions.

For the at-risk students, the program offers an opportunity for peer learning by being around boys who are a positive influence on them. For the model students, it provides them a sense of obligation to maintain good behavior and grades, Harvey said.

With a motto of “No Excuses,” he wants to promote self-reliance and personal drive into the students.

“What I want to instill in these kids is ‘in-spite’ attitudes,” Harvey said. “Despite these conditions, you can give back in life.”

Once the students join the program, Harvey said, the students are expected to put their best effort into their schoolwork, whether that results in them becoming honor roll students or simply passing their classes.

“If you’re in the Man-to-Man program, the expectations are higher,” Harvey said. “You won’t be a member without putting in your all.”

If program participants are consistent troublemakers, they face being voted out of the group.

Under this process, students learn to become responsible and self-disciplined, principal Donald Warren, a fellow Crisp County High School graduate, said.

“It teaches the kids to be accountable,” Warren said. “It’s a good learning experience.”

Speakers also come to talk to the students, many of whom were once at-risk students themselves and now work in a variety of professional fields, such as FBI agents, doctors and lawyers.

Every May, Man-to-Man hosts an end-of-the-year banquet for the students’ parents. Local businesses sponsor the event, donating everything from formal wear to the boys, to flowers and catered food. The event is an opportunity for family members to see how much the boys have progressed from their time in the program, Harvey said.

As a result of the program, there have been fewer discipline problems at the school, higher achievement on CRCTs and increased grade promotion, Warren said.

“We were once young men as they are,” Warren said. “We’ve turned around and become successful. We hold them accountable, and if we can do it, they can do it.”

The school is also working on creating Step Up, a comparable program for eighth-grade girls, possibly by next year, Warren said.

Harvey’s biggest motivation for the program is to become a positive role model in the boys’ lives, he said.

“My goal is to mold a productive citizen, a man that owns up to his actions. That’s all I want to do,” he said. “I want to be that father figure for that kid that is missing a father, a positive male figure. It’s tough love, but it’s the best love.”

To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 256-9751.