AAMI Seeks Funding to Support Youth Development in Harlem

Boys play ping-pong during program.

by Jenna Haines

Ten boys circle around a table with math worksheets.  Instead of solving simple equations, the boys crunch NBA statistics.  Fascinated by their favorite players’ shooting ratios, they process mathematic principles with relative ease.

These boys are students in the African-American Male Initiative’s Steps to Success program.   As the boys prepare to close down for the summer on May 14th, the administration’s work just begins.  The first wave of multi-year endowment contracts that have supported the program are up for renegotiation at the end of the term.  Though the program has been consistently funded since its start in 2006, the resurfacing of contract negotiations causes administrators and educators to reflect on the program’s goals and progress.

Composed of a staff of life coaches, arts teachers and tutors, the program facilitates a supplemental, academic support system for select African-American males in Harlem.  AAMI Director Clifton Watson, who recently joined the program in August 2010, summarizes the program’s mission statement.  “It is a program set up to provide comprehensive, academic and social support to African-American males to ensure they perform up to their capabilities,” said Watson.

AAMI currently provides mentoring to about 50 boys, most starting during their 2nd grade year.  They receive tutoring from area college students from Columbia and NYU, weekly mentoring sessions from life coaches, teacher conferences, weekend activities and everyday hero seminars, which are group discussions with successful black men in various fields.  Each element of the program is designed to foster academic growth and a heightened sense of community involvement.

Because of the vast amount of viable candidates in Harlem, AAMI originally began their search for applicable students in familiar territory, where families already demonstrated a need for community involvement, according to Watson.  “Through Children’s Aid Society, we have 3 community centers in Harlem,” said Watson, “and we decided to target those first.”

Charles Emmanuel, a life coach for the program, has worked with many of the children since the beginning of AAMI.  “It’s very intimate with a lot of the boys,” said Emmanuel.  “I’ve known most of them since the 2nd grade, and it’s interesting to see them develop.  For the most part, they know it’s a mentor-student relationship.  But it can be challenging sometimes to maintain the boundaries, so they don’t confuse you with being a father figure.”

As a life coach, Emmanuel spends immense amounts of time with the boys.  He visits their schools, talks to their teachers, meets with the boys individually and participates in the Saturday Cultural Academy, a weekly 3-hour long series of enrichment classes.

However, his role in the program began on a more administrative front.  “Initially, I started out with the research team.  I identified problems, like academic standards, and tried to find the solutions.  We discovered that the 4th grade syndrome was one of the primary obstacles, and we hope to dispel its effect through early intervention.”

The 4th grade syndrome, according to Emmanuel, is the identifiable grade point by which African-American students have fallen too far behind academically to catch up or to care.  AAMI thus admits students in the 2nd grade, targeting the average, B or C scoring student in Harlem, in order to better test the effectiveness of the program.  Though income is not a candidacy requirement, the parent(s) or guardian(s) must be wiling to occasionally volunteer, and the child must have been born in the United States.

Parent participation is large component of the program, according to Watson, because the reinforcement of AAMI’s ideals at home is necessary for the student to progress.  “The program has a large emphasis on working with parents,” said Watson.  “We almost do as much work with parents and families as we do with students.”

Beyond volunteering, the family’s main role is simply to get the child to the program.  David Garfinkel, an America Reads tutor for AAMI, also tutors at MS 45, a public middle school in East Harlem.  According to Garfinkel, the students at MS 45 don’t fall behind because of academics.  They fall behind because they don’t show up.  For him, the student’s participation at AAMI is a refreshing contrast.  “It’s great to see kids that are willing to give their time outside of school,” said Garfinkel.  “It’s something the community really needs.”

Academics and participation may set the students at AAMI apart, but Roger Ball, another life coach at AAMI, notes a more fundamental difference between it and other programs or schools.  “The nature of this work questions and moves some boundaries,” said Ball.  “When working with these children, you are invited into their lives to create meaningful relationships.  You have to maintain your professional role while becoming a human resource.  You have to have the human capacity to relate, and it’s personal.  I have to be both a mentor/model and an orchestrator of resources.”

To orchestrate these resources, however, Watson notes that ends must be met.  “We have a budget of $500,000 yearly,” said Watson.  “The money needs to supply staff and materials.  For instance, we’re currently looking for someone to coordinate our academic support program because I’m only half of that job.  We also have boys who need reading remediation programs with students at Columbia, but that all has to be paid for.”

Fortunately for the program, according to Emmanuel, AAMI’s students have demonstrated ample evidence of improvement to the program’s investors.  “As of now, we haven’t had any boys held back,” said Emmanuel.  “Socially and emotionally, we’ve seen a lot of them grow up.  We started with an average bunch of boys, and now we have boys who are honors, A+ students and C students who became B students.  We also have some who haven’t made the jump yet, but they are progressing, as well.”

Despite hard economic times, the program’s success is acquiring more financial interest.  The Black Male Donor Collaborative donated $100,000 to AAMI in 2010, allowing the program to provide the students with more materials and individualized attention.  “The program is required to evolve,” said Ball.  “Boys have changing needs, so the program has to be nimble.  We are not serving a static population.”

Boys present at ceremony.

About Jenna Haines
Jenna Haines is a writer, editor, and communications specialist based in the south. For fun, she writes about health, fitness, travel, life, and brunch. Jenna's professional work has appeared in a variety of magazines, such as Men’s Fitness, CityScope, HealthScope, and Holly Pinafore. She is also the founder of Chattanooga Brunches, the #1 brunch directory in the scenic city. Jenna studied journalism and psychology at New York University, where she graduated Cum Laude in 2013.

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