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Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2008 | Classes used to be an afterthought for teenager Walter Taylor — something that happened between socializing at Morse High School. He clashed with teachers and college was far from his mind.

But after Principal Todd Irving started mentoring Taylor and nine other underachieving boys, he cut down on swearing and is trying to dress classier. He began to pay attention in class and go to tutoring. And he is eager to attend the University of California, Los Angeles after a professor promised that if the group upped their grades, they could tour the campus and lunch with him at a legendary soul food restaurant — Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles — which excites him even more than the college tour.

“It is time to buckle down. Grades are more important now,” said Taylor, a talkative teen who wears a flashy gold necklace that reads “Big Walt” over a bulky sweatshirt. “There are places we want to go. The road I was heading on was like, being in high school six, seven, eight years. I don’t want to be in high school my whole life.”

Irving calls them the Crew. When problems erupt in class they can come to him, and his office is open to them after school for homework and talking about problems with classes, with family, and with girls. Speakers come to the school to coach them on overcoming the obstacles, and they will soon begin training for a five kilometer run. Boys who at first resented being picked for the Crew, thinking it was a punishment, are now reluctant to tell friends lest they want to join the club.

Mentoring is not a silver bullet. After a few months with Irving, only three of the teens have upped their grades, and one of the boys argues with a teacher almost daily.

But when Irving speaks, the teens listen intently. As he talks about his own experiences with college and a career, they can picture themselves in his shoes, a successful black man who says he could easily have veered off that path, if not for mentors of his own. The dream is suddenly not so distant. They come to see him so often that Irving has been surprised, sometimes overwhelmed, by how much they depend on him.

“They are here and they are trying,” Irving said while waiting for the boys in his office. “That is progress.”

Irving is one of three San Diego Unified educators at three high schools mentoring a small group of boys who failed every one of their classes last year, with one mentor and 10 students each at Morse, Hoover and Madison high schools. The program echoes the boys clubs that were planted in Boston schools two years ago and in Greensboro-area schools the year after that, where Superintendent Terry Grier touted them before coming to San Diego Unified. They are trying to beat the statistics with a shoestring budget, an outpouring of attention, and the conviction that relationships are the most powerful reform for children who have failed or whose schools have failed them.

“It is not buying a kid a hot dog twice a month and taking them a movie,” said Mel Collins, principal of southeastern San Diego’s Lincoln High School. “It is about a real connection. People ask me how they can help Lincoln. I say, ‘You can come mentor one of my children and that is one less that I have to worry about.’”

Irving decided to focus on black students, choosing the Crew at random out of dozens of faltering black freshman boys. He knew the grim statistics. Black boys have the highest dropout rate in the county and in the state. They are more likely to drop out than to graduate if they are poor, male and black. And a glaring achievement gap persists between Filipino students and their black and Latino classmates at Morse, where black students score lower on state tests than all other ethnic groups, and lower than students who are learning English.

That gap is one of the most persistent challenges for schools in San Diego Unified, in California, and across the country. Scholars have called black male students “an endangered species,” frequently stereotyped and burdened by generations of poverty and low expectations. Numerous reforms have been tried to close the achievement gap, from smaller schools and schools-within-schools to career education and counseling. Morse operates a school-within-a-school for budding engineers, offers more of the rigorous Advanced Placement classes than most local high schools, and brings in outside groups to talk about gang violence.

But the work is not finished, and dozens of teens are still slipping away. It is estimated that nearly a quarter of Morse students drop out between freshman and senior year. So Irving turned to the same thing that had changed his own life: Mentoring.

Irving said he was once no different than the boys in the Crew who slump in class or bicker with teachers, a teenage “knucklehead” growing up in Long Beach in a sprawling family impacted by poverty and crime. One of his uncles is incarcerated, he tells the boys, and his extended family is pocked with drug abuse and prostitution. He doubts he would have gone to college if not for an older black man overseeing a summer youth employment program who talked to him about schoolwork, about networking, and dressing like a professional.

That man was Mel Collins, the same Mel Collins who now oversees Lincoln High a few miles away from Morse. He remembers Irving not as a bad kid but a jokester, a kid who “tried to run a game” on him until Collins warned that he and a buddy would be “minus some body parts.” He told the mischievous teen he was talented and smart — he just had to get his act together.

And he did. Irving snagged a basketball scholarship to Southern Utah State University and ascended through the educational ranks in Long Beach, Compton and East Palo Alto before rejoining his former mentor in San Diego more than two years ago.

They talk regularly, and even roomed together before Irving found his own place in the city. He credits his career to Collins and other black male mentors whose paths have crossed his — former Superintendent Carl Cohn and county Superintendent Randolph Ward — and who saw his potential and coached him along.

Irving wants to do the same for the Crew, and he sees himself in them. They talk about being basketball or soccer players, he said, because they have been exposed to few other careers. They are excited about eating waffles in Los Angeles, he said, because they know little about the outside world beyond their neighborhoods. Irving advertises that world by bringing in outsiders, by talking about his own life, and even by playing to their hormones, promising that college girls are far prettier and smarter than high school girls.

“I just look back and smile,” Collins said, “when I see the things Todd is doing at Morse.”

Mentoring is only one of his duties. Friends have nicknamed him “Big Tuna” because Irving wakes before daybreak to answer e-mails and patrol the Morse campus, as early as a fisherman would wake for a catch. His long hours are charted in the meticulous handwriting that blankets the dry erase boards on every wall of his office, outlining the schedules for visiting classes and sorting out the responsibilities of each of his five vice principals. Jazz plays almost constantly in his office, and “No Drama” is underlined three times under the goals for a campus police officer.

The task is steep for Irving. Morse has repeatedly faltered under the standards of No Child Left Behind, largely due to the sagging scores of black and Latino students, and while Lincoln has enjoyed the spotlight and endured the microscope after a sweeping renovation that shut down the campus for years, Morse has often been overlooked and struggles to overcome a dismal reputation. Much as he strives to convince the Crew themselves that they can achieve, Irving wants to prove to the community that Morse can buck the stereotypes of a large urban school and succeed. He brought back nighttime football games to boost school pride and show that Morse is safe, cracked down on tardiness to make more students heed the bells, and built trust with teachers by encouraging them to use any classroom method that worked.

“Nobody comes in and says, ‘You should have done it this way,’” said math teacher Elizabeth Ahlgren, who sits on a national teachers union board. She added, “He treats us as professionals.”

Mentoring is not isolated to Morse or to the new program. There are also broader programs that intermittently serve larger groups of kids, and school district counselors do similar work to catch slipping students. But the new effort is more targeted and more closely watched, a pilot program that could eventually spread into something wider and more systematic for San Diego Unified. And educators say that as a black man in a field where black men are scarce, Irving has more credibility with the teens most at risk.

“I could tell them these things” about college and careers, said Ann Menna, a Morse vice principal who runs a parallel Morse program for black and Latino boys who show academic promise. “But I’m just some white chick who works at this school.”

Black and Latino boys see far more white teachers than those that look like them and rarely see principals of their own race, an imbalance that has been linked to black students’ disengagement with school. Data show that the majority of teachers at Morse and in California last year were white. Irving puts the skills of his educators first, but he has intentionally populated his school with a diverse set of counselors and vice principals students can identify with. Boys in the Crew speak openly about feeling more comfortable with Irving because he is black.

“He is the principal and he is our color,” said Taylor, who said other people had told him he was smart, that he could do better in school, but it took Irving to make him listen. “He doesn’t have to do this, and he is taking the time to talk to us.”

He paused. “He kind of took us under his wing.”

Just before the winter holidays, the Crew gathered in his office to review their grades, some of them downcast as they scanned the Ds and Fs that persisted on their report cards. Irving asked them what else he could do to help. The boys had only one suggestion: Keeping his office open later.

Irving listened and promised to do it, and then he told them to open their gifts.

They unfolded small cardboard boxes and peeled away the plastic wrap to reveal black leather planners embossed with the words “10 to Succeed.” The same kind that professionals and businessmen use, Irving told them as they paged through the days to come. “Dang,” one teen murmured. They looked a lot like the planner Irving uses to detail his many appointments — appointments he will readily shuffle for “his boys.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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