Education

Wichita district’s message to middle-school boys: ‘It’s cool to be smart’

Enzo Vargas, front, and Jimmy Sperry, seventh-graders at Jardine Middle School, watch a kickoff ceremony for BAASE (Better Academics and Social Excellence). The new group hopes to inspire boys of color to enroll in honors and advanced-level classes and prepare for college.
Enzo Vargas, front, and Jimmy Sperry, seventh-graders at Jardine Middle School, watch a kickoff ceremony for BAASE (Better Academics and Social Excellence). The new group hopes to inspire boys of color to enroll in honors and advanced-level classes and prepare for college. The Wichita Eagle

Andrell Burton goes to class every day, pays attention, does his homework, treats people well and avoids trouble.

That resume typically means a fast-track to college — unless, like Andrell, you’re black.

Black and Latino students — particularly boys — continue to be underrepresented at colleges and universities. Black students comprise about 15 percent of college-age Americans but only 6 percent of college freshmen.

William Polite, director of diversity and equity for Wichita schools, thinks the district can change that one boy at a time.

On Tuesday, more than 500 middle-school boys gathered at district headquarters to launch BAASE — Better Academics and Social Excellence — a group aimed at celebrating the achievements of young boys of color and inspiring them toward college.

To be invited into BAASE, the seventh- and eighth-graders from Wichita’s 16 middle schools have to have a minimum grade point average of 3.2, excellent attendance and good behavior.

“They’ve already demonstrated that they have the ability to go to college, Polite said. “Our goal is to bring them all together to create a positive peer group where it’s cool to be smart and it’s fun to be smart.”

During the kickoff, the boys ate pizza and watched a short video titled “Dare to Dream,” which featured images of Martin Luther King Jr., Michael Jordan, Misty Copeland, Jesse Owens and others.

They set individual goals and signed a pledge agreeing “to enter into a brotherhood of a higher level by holding ourselves and each other accountable to the highest standard of achievement both academically and socially.”

Andrell, a seventh-grader who likes math and basketball, said he is looking forward to group meetings at school, where the boys will hear from guest speakers, practice interview skills and visit college campuses.

His ultimate dream?

“To make it to the NBA,” Andrell said. “But if that doesn’t work out, maybe an accountant.”

Enzo Vargas, a seventh-grader at Jardine Middle School, said he hopes to write or direct movies one day. A classmate, Jimmy Sperry, said he’d like to be an officer in the U.S. Army. Aiden Williams said he wants to be a plumber or an engineer.

Robert Garner, executive director of secondary schools, told the boys to dream big and work hard. One goal of the program is to increase the number of minority students enrolled in Advanced Placement courses and programs such as International Baccalaureate.

“You are the kinds of students that we believe can be leaders,” Garner said. “You’re the ones that are going to make a difference in the world.”

Polite said advisers at each middle school will use a free curriculum called “Believing the College Dream” to guide conversations about the importance of education. They’ll also practice social and emotional skills and talk about important character traits such as honesty, persistence and self-control.

A high school diploma is “the bare minimum,” Garner told the group.

“Our goal is that each of you will graduate and go further. . . . We’re trying to build you up — build your resume to the level where, when you graduate from high school, you will walk out the door and be ready for that college opportunity.”

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