March 5, 2011 by ALAN KRAWITZ. Special to NewsdayCan belonging to a street gang help prepare for a career? A mentoring program atHempsteadHigh School broached that and other topics in ways that"weren't judgmental," said Attah-jundwe Obiajulu, a volunteer mentor with the nonprofit 100Black Men of Long Island.Obiajulu, a retired U.S. Army colonel who owns a financial consultancy inSyosset,said thementors would ask students where they see themselves in five years and how they intend toreach their destination."We let them talk," he added. "They educated us as much as we educated them."Ultimately, Obiajulu said, the students had "an 'aha' moment" - and concluded that being a gangmember was not a realistic route to success.New program in the worksThe Nigerian-born Obiajulu led the program atHempsteadHigh, a school plagued by poor attendance and low graduation rates. Starting in 2007, about 50 male students in grades 9-12participated each year until last spring, when the program came to an end. According to Chotsani Williams, the nonprofit Institute of Student Achievement liaison betweenthe volunteer mentors and the high school, the program dissolved because of restructuring andadministrative turnover at the school, which included the departure of the school's principal aswell as her own move into another job.
Now 100 Black Men, whose mission is to improve quality of life and enhance educational andeconomic opportunities for African-Americans onLong Island,is aiming to continue mentoringyoung men in Hempstead and starting programs in other school districts. Those includeRoosevelt,WyandanchandFreeport,said Phil Andrews, the group's president.Obiajulu recently participated in a mentor-training weekend, a step taken to ensure theorganization will be "prepared to mentor at school districts across Long Island," Andrews said.Ernie Kight, principal of FreeportHigh School, said he's looking forward to the program's debutthere. "It's a great idea to have people from the business world come in and help mentor our kids," Kight said.In Hempstead, 100 Black Men is planning for a mentoring program at the group's headquarters,at 9 Centre St., said group member Warren Woodberry Jr. No start date has been set, he said.Mentors in the program at Hempstead High encouraged students to discuss self-esteem, theskills necessary for success, and how to build positive relationships.The program was aimed at helping the teens "build relationships with business leaders thatcould also serve as role models," saidHank Williams,former assistant principal at HempsteadHigh.The program was coordinated by the school district, 100 Black Men and the Institute of Student Achievement, a national nonprofit organization focused on preparing students inunderperforming high schools for college.Life lessons taught, learnedObiajulu and 10 rotating mentors met with a small group of students every Tuesday andWednesday, from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Students would participate during their free periods.Daily sessions covered topics from conflict resolution and financial literacy to career planningand even etiquette. In one session, Obiajulu said, he told how he had used diplomacy to defusea potentially violent situation - "This guy wanted to beat me up, but I talked him out of it."He learned later that a student said he had relied on that discussion to avoid a potentially violentlunchroom episode. "This student was excited that my advice worked," Obiajulu said.The mentors also told the students to "always have a plan B" because, Obiajulu said, manyaspired to become successful athletes or entertainers - career plans that can't be counted on. After such discussions, he said, students began to formulate "very rational" options - including"being an engineer or a schoolteacher."The mentors deemed the program a success due to the positive responses of the students aswell as an Institute of Student Achievement report that showed improved test scores and classattendance.