When Shorewood Intermediate School teacher Sam Prystawik reviewed results of the annual School Perceptions Student Survey in Fall 2019, she noticed an unsettling trend.The data showed that many Black male students did not feel they had a trusted adult they could turn to at SIS, and many indicated that they did not feel a sense of belonging at school.
Prystawik brainstormed with Sam Coleman, then the District’s director for equity and currently its director of curriculum and instruction. Together, they began building the framework for a new program in alignment with SIS student wellness- related goals that proposed to connect students with adult advocates.
Mentoring for Leadership was formed to bring together male students of color with similar goals and aspirations, and to foster interaction with positive role models. Prystawik and Coleman recruited SIS students to participate during their weekly guided study time. They also enlisted Saan Blue, SHS ’19, as a program mentor.
“After graduation, I was looking for answers in my own life,” Blue says. “I reached out to Mr. Coleman expressing that a goal of mine was to find meaningful mentoring opportunities. When he approached me later on about the Mentoring for Leadership concept, I realized this was the perfect opportunity. I didn’t have anything like this when I was going through school, though I wish I did, and I wanted to help these young men, who I could see so much of myself in.”
Blue helped facilitate both the seventh- and eighth-grade groups last school year and now facilitates a group for high-school freshmen, who asked to continue with the program when they entered Shorewood High School.
“The fact that these students expressed their desire to continue shows just how important it is to have a protected space for them to connect,” Coleman notes.
While Covid-19 has created some obstacles, the groups have still met virtually or in person. Meetings begin with a check-in, when members discuss anything on their minds such as current news, feelings or life events. The students then participate in a team challenge together that is designed to help develop confidence, improve leadership and teamwork skills, and support individual identity development. Following each challenge, the students take time to reflect, discuss lessons learned and explore relevance to real-world experience.
“The challenges are pretty fun and interesting,” says SHS freshman Sam Hinshaw. “We get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and working together to complete a challenge helps strengthen our bond as a group. I’ve become much more open since being in this group and it truly has become a brotherhood.”
Adds freshman Alex Holt, “If we need to have serious conversations, we will, and we know we have this safe space where we can just feel free to be ourselves, where we are fully accepted for who we are.”
Collectively, the members agree that being part of M4L has enhanced their school experiences.
“Having Saan with us every week is amazing, and he’s such a huge part of this group,” says freshman Caleb Hinshaw. “I know I can trust him and talk to him when I’m down, and I love having someone I can look up to who understands what I’m going through. I have become a much more confident person, and I speak up more in class.”
Both Coleman and Blue say they have seen the young men make tremendous strides in the program. They anticipate this experience will follow the students through life after graduation from SHS.
“This is so much bigger than a school thing,” Blue says. “It’s a valuable life process of these young men realizing who they are, figuring out their identity and being proud of themselves for it.”
“I’ve seen too many Black men navigating life in isolation,” adds Coleman. “I truly hope that the bonds our students create now will be lifelong — that they will take mutual interest in each other’s lives as they pursue new work opportunities and start their own families and that, someday, they will feel called to become a mentor themselves.”
*This story can also be found in the Spring 2021 Shorewood Today magazine.*
The ninth-grade Mentoring for Leadership group meets in January with District Director of Curriculum and Instruction Sam Coleman, far right. (Photo credit: Patrick Manning)