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January 15, 2014

Special Blog Post: Pittsburgh Public Schools' We Promise Mentor Program

Kennedy Blue Communications’ partner, Jamar Thrasher, is participating in a campaign to promote the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ We Promise program. Jamar is a strong supporter of mentoring programs, therefore all opinions remain his own. #IAmWePromise #PPSMentorsMatter


Talk the Talk

By Jamar Thrasher

Before entering third grade, I never cared too much for being at school. I was a high performer and I liked my courses, classmates, and my teachers, but I had more fun at my East Liberty home. My idea of fun was playing hide-and-go-seek with my friends who lived in my neighborhood, watching Power Rangers, collecting baseball cards, and reading books. Although I had fun at school taking field trips and was a high academic performer, I preferred the comfort of my own home than the fortress of Pittsburgh Fulton (hyperlink school to: . http://discoverpps.org/school.php?id=134)  That all changed when I met Mr. Joseph Bonner.

He had a charisma about him that was undeniable. Like most of the children in the class, he was black, but he also made the white and Hispanic students feel comfortable. The first week of school, he gave us all nicknames. My friend José was nicknamed “Crashy,” because he crashed his bike. My friend Jamie was called “Pumpkin Head,” because she shared with the class that her family said she had pumpkin-sized head. And of course, my nickname was “Lemon Head,” because I always kept a pack of Lemonhead candy on me no matter what. Mr. Bonner didn’t just get to know his students. He shared his life outside of the school with us as well. He showed us pictures and told us stories about his Akita dog and his other interests. By building relationships with us, he became the coolest teacher at Fulton, and we all wanted to be like him.


A student and mentor of the We Promise Mentor Program.

Back then, I had a horrible stutter. It became less noticeable after I attended speech therapy classes at the school, but from time to time, I would fall back to the comfort of receiving pity from adults for my stutter. “Don’t talk like that,” Mr. Bonner said. He never advocated that behavior and encouraged me to never use a handicap to try to advance. Even though I struggled with my stutter he told me to try harder and to slow down and to never purposely handicap myself, and for that I am forever grateful.

Even now, as a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, I think back to third grade and Mr. Bonner’s ability to inspire me and give me confidence. Having an African-American teacher act as a mentor (link word mentor to:  http://www.pps.k12.pa.us/mentoring) was really great for me, and it is something all students should experience. The best thing about having a black male teacher is the fact that there were not many black male teachers at the time. I only remember two—Mr. Bonner and Mr. Patrick. Having an African-American male teacher was fascinating, because before being a black male, they were a black boy like me.

That is why I am a full supporter of the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ We Promise mentor program. The program aims to increase the number of African-American male students who are graduating and are eligible for the Pittsburgh Promise Scholarship. The students are matched with African-American male mentors in the professional sector. The mission—to empower students like Mr. Bonner empowered me. By participating in the program, juniors and seniors can take ownership of their college and career-readiness goals and successfully transition from high school to college and/or full-time employment.  But most importantly, black students are able to see men who look like them and are from similar backgrounds achieve success. There is no doubt in my mind, that had it not been for the support of my family, friends, and mentors like Mr. Bonner that I—a boy who grew up on Larimer Avenue during the height of the Pittsburgh gang wars–   could have dodged peer pressure to go to the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, for undergraduate and graduate school.

So why target a particular group of students instead of giving all students additional support? According to the Project Manager, Jason Rivers, the goal is to eliminate racial disparities. During the 2011-12 school year, the percentage of black male seniors that were Promise eligible—which means they graduated with a 2.5 Cumulative GPA and 90-percent attendance record—was only 18-percent.  In 2012-13, that number increased slightly to 23-percent. This statistic is alarming and directly contributes to the reason why as I progressed to higher education I saw less and less blacks around me. Without the Promise scholarship, Being 67 percent of African-American males won’t receive $40,000 to fund their scholastic goals.

Currently, there are about 300 students and 60 mentors participating in the We Promise Program. There are more students than mentors and hopefully we can get enough mentors for each student so that they can have one-on-one time with each other.

As a personal call to action, I encourage every professional Black man in Pittsburgh to consider participating in the We Promise Program. I have a little brother who is a senior at Pittsburgh Obama. To ensure he continues to have the resources needed to succeed in life, I take time out with him. But to make sure my efforts are not limited to just my family and to encourage students like Mr. Bonner encouraged me so many years ago, I am signing up to become a We Promise mentor. The way to encourage students is to make one-on-one relationships with them that are meaningful.

For more information on the We Promise Program and to get involved as a mentor or to recommend a student, please visit: http://www.pps.k12.pa.us/WePromise