New mentor program seeks to help black male students succeed beyond graduation

By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Tupelo High School senior Sam Gilleylen traveled to Tupelo Christian Preparatory School last Thursday afternoon.
Inside the school’s gymnasium, Gilleylen joined several TCPS students in a game of basketball, breaking a sweat, firing shots from the perimeter and driving through the lane for layups.
Meanwhile, Joe Washington, the head coach of the junior high basketball team at TCPS, stood on the sideline. Sometimes he gave advice to Gilleylen or the other players. Other times, he held a miniature video camera that he focused on Gilleylen as the THS student ran up and down the court.
Washington is also the president of Project T.E.A.M., a new community group organized to support black male students in the Tupelo Public School District. T.E.A.M. stands for “tagging,” “educating,” “advisory,” and “mentoring.”
On this particular day, Washington was helping Gilleylen work on his senior project, a video the student is producing that will document how basketball has made him a better person.
“I probably wouldn’t have done the project if I didn’t have his help,” Gilleylen said. “I’m getting help I need to graduate and someone is taking time from a busy schedule to work with me.”
Project T.E.A.M. was born over a lunch meeting between TPSD Assistant Superintendents George Noflin and Fred Hill and the Community Development Foundation’s Orlando Pannell at Down Home Cooking in Verona. The three men discussed the disproportionate number of black male students who were dropping out of school, getting suspended or being assigned to the district’s alternative school.
They talked about what they could do to address the need and conceptualized an organization in which black men in the community would mentor black male students. That organization now has 107 volunteers.
“When we first sat down, and Dr. Hill brought up the statistic about 150 African-American males who already dropped out who were supposed to graduate with this senior class, it upset my stomach,” Pannell said. “If we don’t reach back to help people who are calling out for our help, how can you call yourself successful?”
For its first target, the organization, which operates independently of the school district, is focusing on seniors in danger of not graduating in May.
Some of the 36 students in the initial target group need help finishing their senior projects. Others must pass a state test or are at risk of failing a core class.
The mission doesn’t end there. As Project T.E.A.M. expands, it plans to work with Itawamba Community College for a G.E.D. program for dropouts who are at least 19 years old. It will encourage dropouts under 19 years old to return to school and get their diplomas. That might mean creating different paths, Hill said, such as home-school programs for those who struggle in the school setting.
“We’re not just mentoring,” Hill said. “We are about creating educational opportunities.”
Washington echoes Hill that the program goes deeper than academics.
“It is more than that,” Washington said. “We have to teach kids a new mentality. It is about changing their entire being to be something different than what they are doing. It has to engulf the kids’ mind, body and soul.”
As the program expands, its focus may also expand beyond black males. But for now, Pannell said, that is where the need is.
“I’m sure it is going to expand to more than this, but you need to eat what is on your plate before you go back for more,” Pannell said. “This is what is on our plate right now.”
Washington said his relationship with Gilleylen will go beyond the senior’s graduation from high school. He’s also been coordinating workouts with his mentee to help Gilleylen find an opportunity to play basketball in college.
“We need to make sure our goals are high enough,” Noflin said. “It is not just that they finish high school, but what will they do after they finish high school?”
The members of Project T.E.A.M. also acknowledge that the task will be difficult as they encounter some youths who resist efforts to help them.
“This is not an easy job,” Pannell said. “Everyone we try to help may not want help, but we can’t quit just because they don’t say the right things to us.”
Noflin said that the secret will be building relationships to connect with the mentees.
“We want them to be able to look a little deeper and a little broader and a little farther down the road,” he said. “If we can get them to look to the future and have a plan, then we think they’ll make the right decision.”
Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@djournal.com.

To learn more about Project T.E.A.M. or to join the organization, contact Fred Hill at fohill@tupeloschools.com or George Noflin at gnoflin@tupeloschools.com.