Eight years ago, educators in the Charlottesville area noticed that when it came to math, there was an achievement gap between African American students and their white peers. And so an academy was born to try to improve those skills. And as WMRA’s Jordy Yager reports, what’s resulted is much more.
Every morning for the last two weeks, about 30 kids made their way into Murray High School. They’re all between 5th and 8th grade, and they’re attending a two-week summer academy called M-Cubed. It’s put on by the 100 Black Men of Central Virginia.
At the front of the room is Wes Bellamy, the group’s president. Each morning, he asks the kids to start the day by reciting the group’s creed.
WES BELLAMY: One, two, three...
GROUP: We believe, we are the scholars of…
BELLAMY: Start over. If you’re going to say this creed, and you believe that you are the scholars of the 100 Black Men of Central Virginia, you have to be what? Confident. You have to be what?
BELLAMY: In life we have to be what?
BELLAMY: Do we meet expectations?
GROUP: We exceed them.
BELLAMY: And why do we never fail?
GROUP: Because we never give up.
Bellamy’s not only the group’s president, he’s the only African-American City Councilor in Charlottesville, and he’s the city’s vice mayor. But for these two weeks, he’s the kids’ teacher.
BELLAMY: So M-Cubed stands for Math, Men, on a Mission. And essentially what it is is a summer academy for African American males from Albemarle and Charlottesville in which we go over everything from math and geometry to improving their writing, but also manhood development and more specifically, what it means to be an African American male in this area.
The two weeks is a journey. Every morning, after the creed, they dive into an hour-long lesson on a weighty issue. But it all centers around value, around building the confidence to engage with the world as it is. Most of the week, that learning happens in the classroom. But it doesn’t stop there.
One day Charlottesville Police Chief Al Thomas joined the kids. The next it was City Manager Maurice Jones, Charlottesville Firefighter Lance Blakey, City Employment Specialist Matthew Murphy, and a half-dozen other local African American professionals who are shaping the city’s future. Together, they shared stories of what changed their lives when they were kids, and they imparted lessons they learned along the way.
But the days aren’t all super heavy. Kids are kids after all.
After recess, in the afternoon, the kids break up for intensive math lessons. In one group, rising 8th graders tackle advanced algebra, 2-3 years beyond their grade level. They then put some of that book knowledge into action by building and programming a small robot to drive a track in the classroom.
JAIDEN: I built it. He’s more of the coding guy, I’m more of the building guy.
CONNOR: We built that in the first class is like 30 minutes.
Jaiden is 12, and his partner Connor is 13. They go to Henley Elementary in Albemarle County.
JAIDEN: These two weeks, it helps us get a head start on math and geometry. And I think that’s really helped us be disciplined and learn about life more and it makes us better people.
Jaiden and Connor’s class for these two weeks was taught by Pastor Rickey White and Alex Beverly. Alex is 17 now, but he started with 100 Black Men almost six years ago.
ALEX BEVERLY: So in 6th grade, I wasn’t the most confident, I wouldn’t speak out in groups or anything, so it’s made me a really great public speaker. And it’s helped me with confidence. When I moved to Richmond it was easier to meet people and get involved because of the skills I learned in the program, and go after what I wanted to do.
For Alex, that’s meant becoming an oral surgeon. He knows it’ll mean 4 years of college, 4 years of dental school, and 4 more years of residency. But that’s okay, because while he’s just a senior in high school now, he’s already a certified dental assistant.
It’s that sort of goal-oriented thinking that the program pushes kids towards.
To get the younger kids to grasp what that actually entails, one morning for their lesson, Bellamy listed out, on a giant white board, all the costs that come with adulthood.
BELLAMY: How much do you all think rent or mortgage is a month? Let’s just throw some numbers out. Let me hear it. $500, $820…
Electric bills, cable, Internet, car payments, credit cards. The list went on —eventually agreeing that it takes about $5,000 a month to live decently in Charlottesville. But then, Bellamy took it a step further.
BELLAMY: But if you’re not willing to put work in in school, if you’re not willing to put the work in to get the credentials, to be able to acquire or command this kind of salary, how are you going to be able to pay those bills or live that lifestyle that you’re talking about?
The lessons can sneak up on the kids too. At one point, one morning, Bellamy asked several students to stand, in preparation to say the creed. Then, another teacher knocked on the door and the class was momentarily distracted. The other teacher left, and Bellamy asked one of the standing students to sit down. The student objected, saying, ‘No, you told me to stand.’ Bellamy seized the moment.
BELLAMY: How often does something similar like that happen to you all at school? And what happens normally? How many of us choose to go back-and-forth with the teacher or the instructor? And then think about it: where does us going back and forth get us?
The 100 Black Men of Central Virginia’s been around long enough now, that the results are clear: the kids test scores are increasing, as is their placement in advanced level classes, and the very first group of kids is now going off to college. Bellamy’s changed too. The group has raised him, he says. He puts his all into being with these kids, and at the end of the day he gets emotional and he worries: Is it enough?
But then, he comes back to his creed. Their creed.
GROUP: We believe, we are the scholars of the 100 Black Men of Central Virginia M-Cubed…