- Associated Press - Saturday, May 7, 2016

ALIQUIPPA, Pa. (AP) - In rapid-fire succession, Danaysia Hall shows addition flash cards to a trio of her math proteges, competing to see who can answer first.

“Twelve!” shouts Kelly Booker, 7, edging My’Kion Mills, 9, and Kyle Moreland, 7, by nanoseconds.

The boys — balancing on knees, forearms resting on a table — lean forward in their chairs in eager anticipation of the next card.

“Eight!” an exuberant My’Kion calls out.

“Would you stop yelling like that,” a boy, concentrating at a nearby table, says.

“Ready? Who’s going to get it?” says Hall, a first-grade teacher, before flashing another card.

“Nine! Yes!” says Kelly with a fist pump.

The boys, doing so well with their addition, prompt Hall to say, “I’m going to go faster. This is level two. Ready?”

The boys are up to the challenge. They are among 20 — ages 7 to 9, predominantly African-Americans living in single-parent homes — that the Family Life Center of Aliquippa hopes to mold into men through Boys-2-Men, an innovative after-school program that not only tutors, but mentors them.

“We have identified some of our African-American young men who we consider might be at risk,” said John Thomas, Boys-2-Men board member and retired superintendent of the Aliquippa School District, because of economic, behavioral or academic problems.

“We wanted to tap into these young fellows to help them mature and to grow and to have positive role models in their life — men that can help guide them along the way.”

All are pupils at Aliquippa Elementary School in second through fourth grades. Based on test scores, they were referred by teachers and counselors as those “who potentially have the ability to move and go beyond where they are,” said Bishop Bernard S. Wallace, executive director of the Family Life Center under the auspices of Church in the Round, a Church of God in Christ in Aliquippa.

The Heinz Endowments awarded the nonprofit Family Life Center a two-year $50,000 grant to launch Boys-2-Men. It’s been operating since March.

Twice a week — Tuesdays and Thursdays — the boys meet for about two hours after school with five tutors coordinated by Elverna Cuffie, and five aides. Four of the tutors — Maya Henderson, Patricia Pettis, Pam Swanson and Hall — are teachers at Aliquippa Elementary. Nekoyia Iverson is a Head Start teacher. Assisting them are Luverda Parker, Jennifer Waller, Bonnie Reid, Suprena Smith and Eileen Cummings.

The program runs the duration of the school year; during summer it will offer computer training programs.

‘Comprehensive program’

A bus drops off the boys at the Family Life Center at Woodrow and Griffith streets about 3:30 p.m. They first are treated to a snack — this day a golden delicious apple, bag of nacho cheese-flavored Doritos and Kool-Aid drink pouches.

Then they break into groups of three to five, rotating at various learning stations to work on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills; reading and writing; language arts and vocabulary enhancement; and classroom etiquette.

They also spend time in a state-of-the-art computer lab using learning platforms created by Khan Academy, a nonprofit founded in 2008 that provides free online materials — from art history and economics to physics and biology — to support personalized education.

“It’s a very well-rounded, comprehensive program and I’m glad to be a part of it,” said Swanson, who teaches fourth grade.

“I have the opportunity to sit down with my fourth-graders one-on-one to reinforce skills that they know and some where there are gaps.”

This day she helps three students with persuasive writing. They are asked to support or refute the statement: It is inhumane to keep wild animals in a zoo.

“Let’s see what you have,” she says to Rico Miller.

“What else can you think about while they’re in the zoo? Are they well cared for? Is that another thought?

Rico sets pencil to paper adding more sentences.

Nearby, Iverson rotates among five boys working on vocabulary and grammar skills, explaining the differences in parts of speech — nouns, pronouns, verbs.

“We’re looking for action verbs. Do you know what an action verb is? Like you’re doing something,” she says.

Iverson said Boys-2-Men helps build confidence in the classroom; promotes self-esteem outside of the classroom.

“I think it will just help them and prepare them to be lifelong educators.”

At other stations, boys learn to tell time, work antonym crossword puzzles, compute monetary values.

Several boys, workbooks in hand, sit across from Pettis, differentiating coins.

“If we put a nickel with it how much more would we have?” Pettis asks.

“Twenty cents,” her students answer in unison.

“Hot diggity dog!” she encourages. “Next coin?”

“Next coin is a nickel,” they say.

“How much is it worth?”

“Five cents,” they answer.

“Where are we right now?” she asks.

“Twenty cents,” the boys respond.

“If we put a nickel with it where would we be?”

“Twenty-five cents,” they shout.

“Can you tell me another coin that’s worth 25 cents?

“A quarter!”

“Up top,” Pettis says, raising her palm for a round of high-fives.

Critical intervention

Bishop Melvin E. Clark Sr., founder of the Family Life Center and senior pastor at Church in the Round for 57 years, is the visionary behind Boys-2-Men, said Wallace, whose intent is to develop life-changing programs that empower the community.

“This is a very crucial time in their lives,” Thomas said of the young boys, often vulnerable and impressionable, and why it’s critical to intervene at an early age.

And Aliquippa’s characterization as a distressed community offers youth few alternatives.

The Family Life Center’s grant proposal to the Heinz Endowments — one Wallace says was “air tight” — painted a realistic, if not grim, picture of the city citing economic and population losses following the decline of the steel industry in the 1980s.

“Illegal drug activity and crime are visible and have presented itself as a way of life for many young adults,” the proposal said. “It is clear that the communities within which young people live and grow influence their behavior.”

Unemployment, poverty, crime, drug addiction and a preponderance of single-parent houses, the proposal said, all combine to pull families apart.

Statistics cited in the proposal:

.Of the 54 municipalities in Beaver County, Aliquippa has the highest number of households receiving public assistance (16 percent of the total number of recipients).

.People living below poverty also rank the highest of all municipalities at 28 percent of the total population.

.Given those living below poverty, 563 or 15 percent are in female-headed households with children under 18.

.Most residents earn less than $16,804 annually.

Aliquippa’s school system, too, “has experienced difficulty providing adequate education,” the proposal said, adding it’s the only area school that “houses an in-school probation officer to monitor the many adolescents who are involved with the criminal justice system.”

Boys-2-Men offers a way out, a solution beyond bolstering academics: mentorship, an integral part of the program.

Each of the 20 boys is paired with a male role model to offer support and guidance to help them succeed. Mentors are required to pass criminal, child abuse and FBI background clearances. They also are expected to encourage academic success and engage in enrichment activities.

They come from all walks of life — law enforcement, business, education, city administration, law — “even the mortician indicated that he would like to volunteer,” Thomas said. “These are men who we feel are very positive and would have a tremendous impact on the lives of these young fellows because of the impact they have currently in the community of Aliquippa.”

Wallace added mentors who take boys under their wings and show them how they make a living gives them “some thought about their future. I can be this.”

He also said mentors would take boys on field trips - such as to Carnegie Science Center, PNC Park, for example.

“It’s mentoring along with field trips and programming,” said Wallace. “Every mentor that we asked to join in with us is very excited about the possibilities of the program itself, which, too, adds to part of the outcome.”

Parents are, too.

“I love the program,” said Heather Ivanchan, mother of second-grader Jaiden Brown.

He struggles with math and she appreciates the help he’s getting after school.

“He loves it. He loves being with the different teachers, the different people here, the kids from his school.”

Jaiden agreed.

“We just want a good education,” he said. “I think they just want us to be good listeners and I think they just want us to be good in school.It’s really fun.”

Danielle Pharr has noticed vast improvement in her son, Josiah Boykin, a second-grader.

“He struggled with his grades going into the second grade. It was a challenge for him and he didn’t do well in reading and grammar, spelling,” she said, receiving low and failing grades.

“They just got report cards last week or the week before and he pulled up all of his grades that he struggled. Actually, he missed the honor roll by a C.”

Pharr, who described Josiah as a “mamma’s boy,” said her son is now more social and loves coming to Boys-2-Men.

“He’s just like growing into a little man right before my eyes. It’s definitely a program that I think it should be on a larger scale. I mean, if more people knew about it, I think it would benefit not just Aliquippa, but the other communities as well.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1Tdw0bW

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Information from: Beaver County Times, http://www.timesonline.com/

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