- The Washington Times - Monday, April 17, 2006

“Are we gonna use drugs? Oh, no, no, no.

“Do we want to be thugs? Oh, no, no, no.

“Can we make the right choices? Oh, yes, we can.

“What you gonna be? A responsible man.”

At the recent Best Friends Foundation’s gala, a dozen snappily dressed young black men roared these challenges to each other as a crowd of supporters and young black women cheered and applauded.

The chant is part of the “hip hop” anthem of Best Men, the school-based youth-development program for boys, which will soon see its first group of high school seniors graduate. Most, if not all, are bound for some form of higher education.

“I’ve been accepted at two [colleges], but haven’t gotten the rest of my replies,” said Asriel Janifer, 18, who is graduating from Washington Math Science Technology Public Charter High School in Southeast Washington. His goal is to join the Air Force and become a pilot.

The 6-year-old Best Men program, which has 1,500 mostly minority males enrolled in dozens of schools around the nation, is coming of age as national worries about boys and young men are deepening.

Many of the program’s components are remedies many reformers prescribe: character and abstinence education, mentors, team-building sports and musical activities that involve boys from sixth grade through high school.

Philanthropists Foster and Lynn Friess, who last month gave the Best Friends Foundation $1 million for scholarships and program development, are among its many supporters.

But the program has critics, especially among those who think youth should be taught about contraception.

“The bottom line is that young people need comprehensive information to protect their health, and Best Friends does not do that,” said Bill Smith of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.

America’s “boy crisis” has been in the news lately. A Newsweek cover story, “The Boy Crisis,” showed that, compared with girls, boys perform worse academically, are more likely to drop out and are less likely to go to college.

First lady Laura Bush is encouraging boys to excel in school and avoid gangs. PBS did a documentary on Michael Thompson’s book on boys, “Raising Cain.” Earlier this month, William Pollack, who leads the Center for Men and Young Men at Harvard Medical School, warned students at Colby College in Maine that boys are in trouble because they lack social connections.

A host of authors, including Warren Farrell (“The Myth of Male Power,” 1993), Lionel Tiger (“The Decline of Males,” 2000) and Christina Hoff Sommers (“The War Against Boys,” 2001), have warned of risks to young males.

Others say the worries are overblown.

The Boy Scouts was founded in 1910 partly in response to a “boy crisis,” Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers and Brandeis University women’s studies research director Rosalind Chait Barnett recently wrote in The Washington Post.

Unfavorable data on boys are not so dire if they are “broken out by race or class,” they said, adding, “if there is a crisis, it’s among inner-city and rural boys.”

Elayne Bennett, founder and president of the Best Friends Foundation, says data show that the Best Men program is having a positive impact, academically and socially, with those kinds of boys.

A few years ago, University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee researchers compared Milwaukee Best Men participants with peers who were not in the program. The study, released in 2004, showed that the Best Men boys scored higher on standardized tests and had significantly higher school attendance rates and grade-point averages.

New national program data has even more promising findings, said Mrs. Bennett.

At the start of the 2004-2005 school year, 82 percent of Best Men said they hadn’t skipped any school days the previous year. By the end of the school year, that number grew to 86 percent.

“Truancy” data is critical, said Mrs. Bennett. “If you don’t go to class, you won’t pass the standardized tests.”

She was also heartened that Best Men are reporting fewer encounters with bullying and less gang membership. In the District, for instance, almost 13 percent of Best Men said they were “a member of a gang” when the 2004-2005 school year started, but only 3 percent said they were part of a gang when the school year ended.

“We are so proud of that,” said Mrs. Bennett, citing the Best Men’s emphasis on team spirit, identity and positive peer relationships as influential factors.

“They love to wear the [Best Men] shirt,” said Kyle Witty, who coordinates the Milwaukee program and helped design the Best Men’s distinctive “shield,” which features an eagle (foresight), lion (courage), anchor (stability) and gavel (justice).

“What pulls the boys in is honest, straight talk,” said Antonio Robinson, a Best Men leader at a Milwaukee middle school. The program provides regular forums for them to talk about what’s on their minds, he said, adding, “These guys have a lot of things to say.”

Recent data that compares Best Men with sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade peers in the federal Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance survey also find that Best Men are significantly less likely to smoke, drink alcoholic beverages, use drugs or engage in sexual intercourse.

“I tell the guys, ‘You can be a father, but you need to be married first,’” said David Gill, a D.C. Best Men leader who, at 28, is a college graduate, teacher and married father.

Antoine Griffin, 16, a junior at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Northwest Washington, says he’s been with Best Men for five years because “it’s worth it.”

“You know you’re able to help at least one person,” Antoine said at a recent sports and fitness event attended by 150 of the 500 Best Men in the District.

“At Best Men, we connect,” said Asriel, who is one of the first Best Men in the District. “We sit down and talk, play basketball, eat healthy and talk about life, school, problems. Everything.”

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