Atlanta Mentoring Program Boosted by '100 Black Men'

A mentoring program in Atlanta pairs business professionals with high-school students. The program, started by the group 100 Black Men, has been successful at helping students stay in school.

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And now a mentoring program that's getting kids into college. Run by the 100 Black Men of Atlanta, the program offers a full ride if participants meet their obligations all the way through high school.

From Atlanta, Joshua Levs reports.

JOSHUA LEVS: It's called Project Success and its track record is pretty staggering. John Grant is CEO of the 100 Black Men of Atlanta.

Mr. JOHN GRANT (CEO, 100 Black Men of Atlanta): We graduated on a percentage basis from high school more students in terms of percentage, 99 percent, than any other group in the country. Of that, those that went on to post secondary education institutions were more than any other group in the country, and then those that completed, we had a higher completion rate than any group of people in the country.

LEVS: Project Success targets kids in grade schools in troubled areas and works with them through high school. It does not choose them based on academic excellence. In fact, when the 100 Black Men started the program in the late 1980s, the group randomly selected one homeroom in the projects.

Mr. GRANT: We ended up in a school that had a 60 percent dropout rate. We graduated 99 percent of the students on time.

LEVS: Grant says it wasn't just because the program offers to pay for college; some of these students never thought they'd try college. He says the project, setting up each kid with a successful African-American mentor, gave them role models deeply committed to helping them succeed in life.

Mr. GRANT: And they had to see that we were not going away, that we would not allow them to fail, that they we were willing to do what was required for them to be successful, and all they had to do was meet us halfway.

LEVS: Halfway means doing schoolwork and showing up at a Saturday school program in which students talk with mentors about academics, outside interests and life in general. The mentors check in with the students and the students have to give them honest updates.

The program now takes applicants who write essays, go through interviews and prove economic need. Preference goes to kids who would be the first in their families to go to college. Sixteen-year-old Brian Westbrooks(ph) was thrilled when he was accepted.

Mr. BRIAN WESTBROOKS (Project Success): I was like yay!. I was like yay! I was happy because I've always wanted to go to college and be a doctor. Because my mom didn't go to college, don't know my father, and it's just me and my brother.

LEVS: A lot of kids in Project Success come from single-parent families and don't know their dads. Brian says this is what he wanted out of the program.

Mr. WESTBROKES: I needed somebody to, well, look up after, try to model my life like I want to do this. I don't want to be like everybody else. I want to find somebody that's successful that I can know I can count on to be there with me.

LEVS: Brian works with several mentors, including John Grant. He says they spend most of their time talking about becoming responsible, even in little ways.

Mr. WESTBROKES: Basically he showed me how to be a man - how I should present myself, how I'm supposed to look, how - what I'm not supposed to do. A man is not supposed to slouch. A man is not supposed to wear his pants down.

LEVS: In fact, John Grant calls it a litmus test. Every time they get together, he makes sure Brian's belt line is at his waist. Grant says he tries to teach taking yourself and your life seriously.

Mr. GRANT: Having a vision for yourself that's bigger than what you might see today and to not only just talk to him about it but to show him what it means.

LEVS: One of the group's success stories is Rosa Shannon(ph), now 34 years old. She was among the first graduates. Her father was shot and killed when she was a baby. She grew up the youngest of six kids, and she became the first to graduate from college. She credits Project Success for that.

Ms. ROSA SHANNON (Project Success): I didn't settle for what people expected me to be, or just because I was in a high school that was in the middle of the projects or, you know, had a bad reputation, you know, you're had fights. It showed me that I didn't have to be a part of that. I could be in something but I don't have to be it.

LEVS: She says she wants to see more kids have these kinds of programs. The 100 Black Men of Atlanta's Project Success has inspired other mentoring programs around the country, and it has grown, partly through fundraisers building up their cash to pay for all those kids to go to college. There are currently more than 200 young people involved. Some start as early as fourth grade.

For NPR News, I'm Joshua Levs in Atlanta.

COX: Tomorrow, more of NPR's "Crossing The Divide" series. A black woman travels to Ghana to confront her conflicted past.

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