It bothered the Rev. Henry E. Green that, for some African-American boys, going to jail before they reached the age of 20 seemed to be an accepted rite of passage.
He watched sadly, correcting wherever and whenever possible, the young boys walking the street with their pants hanging below their buttocks.
Green, then the senior pastor of Mt. Hermon AME Church in Miami Gardens, had a dream. He wanted to build a school where boys could be taught, at a young age, how to grow up to be responsible men.
Before he could bring the dream to fruition, Green was appointed presiding elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Tampa District of Florida. But before he moved on, Green shared his dream with the Rev. John F. White II, who succeeded him at Mt. Hermon, 17800 NW 25th Ave.
White accepted the challenge to make it possible.
“We praise God for Rev. Green and his vision,” White said. “We’ve tried to pick up the mantle and carry it forward.”
He and his congregation organized the Mount Hermon Community Education Corporation in 2007 with the mission: To save the children.
Salvation would come through developing and mentoring urban youth by providing quality education and educational support programs in economically disadvantaged communities.
“The vision was to focus on early education,” said the Rev. Paul Wiggins, an associate pastor at Mt. Hermon and executive director of the corporation.
The establishment of the Richard Allen Leadership Academy is the corporation’s first endeavor.
Wiggins said there has always been “a lot of negative stereotypes” of African American men, adding, “We wanted to make a positive impact on our young boys’ lives. We believe that the biggest impact can be made if we start working with them during their early years. We tend to lose them by the third grade.”
Starting the academy was not easy but, with prayer and perseverance, Florida’s first all-boys public charter school opened in the fall of 2008 with 83 boys in kindergarten through the fifth grade, housed in classrooms provided by the church.
The four male and two female teachers are certified and have been especially trained to work with boys, said Principal Frances Young.
“We have also discovered that the power of a hug,” Wiggins said. “For many of these boys, hugging is fairly new to them. We also get their parents in to help resolve a problem when the situation calls for it. Young men need to know the consequence of doing wrong.” Nicholas Hanks, 9, understands that all too well. On the day a reporter visited the school, Nicholas was asked to leave the classroom because he broke a rule against speaking before asking permission from his teacher. “Now,” he said, “I have to write down what I should have done correctly. I should have raised my hand before asking the teacher a question.”
In a nearby classroom, retired music teacher Willie Williams volunteers his time to teach music to the boys. This day, the children are learning a song that teaches them to say “hello” in 12 languages.
Single parent Tiffany Howard welcomes the school and the way it is structured. “The teachers are stern, but kind. And I like that the classes are small and that the teachers are willing to give you information on your child’s progress,” she said.
Howard’s son, Tadarryeo D. Herron Jr., is 6. “As a single mother, I need that kind of structure in his life,” she said. “The dress code teaches them to be neat and presentable. My son even tucks in his undershirt. He will not take his shirt out of his pants and has to have a belt. I also like it that, in addition to discipline, the school teaches the boys how to be gentlemen. My son opens the door for me everywhere we go.”
Sandra Rutledge likes the school so much that she has enrolled her second grandson. Her elder grandson started out in the fourth grade. “Dehvon was having so many problems in school. I was at my wits end,” Rutledge said. “We didn’t know what to do with him. We considered boot camp and boarding school. Then, one day, I was telling Mrs. Young about my grandson’s problems and she told me she was starting an all-boys charter school and why don’t I send him there. That was our answer.”
Dehvon spent two years at the school and now is in the National Honor Society. “He just needed a teacher to care for him and work with him,” Rutledge said.
White, too, is excited about the school and is leading the church into expanding the initiative. “Soon, we will close on a piece of property just west of the church, where we plan to build a Family Life Center, which will house the academy, as well as an all-girls charter school, a day care and an infant and toddler care area.”
Wiggins and Young, run the school with a stern but loving hand. Young is a retired Miami-Dade public school teacher. “We found her sitting in our pews. She thought she had retired,” Wiggins said.
The boys enrolled in the academy come from Miami-Dade and south Broward. Although the school is free, public school parents must provide transportation, if needed.
Now in its third academic year, the school has 97 pupils, with room for another 11. It has already made some impressive accomplishments. In its first year of eligibility (2009-2010), the school earned an FCAT score of “C” and has had two graduating classes from elementary to middle school. Some 82 percent of the fourth graders passed the FCAT writing exam with a score of 3 or higher, Wiggins said.
“Last year we became a charter member of the National Elementary School National Honor Society and inducted 11 boys,” Young said.
To register a boy or for more information about the academy, call the school office, 305-623-3174.
Photo: Anthony Stuart instructs a 2nd grade class.