Things started to get rowdy at the Creative Village Child Development Center. Donovan Vaughn wasn’t having any of it.
Their lessons over, a half-dozen kids had started a game of musical chairs under his and fellow tutors Darien Only and Robert Macklin’s supervision. But warnings to keep quiet got forgotten during the game.
“Everyone back at the table,” Donovan demanded. “What did I just tell you?”
The students, mostly second and third-graders, shuffled toward Donovan. They began to protest that others had been loud, not them. He stopped them.
“You guys have to keep it at a minimum,” he said. “Use your inside voices. Be gentle with each other.”
Every week, the three head to the South Toledo day-care center to tutor the group of Old Orchard Elementary students. They help with homework and do formative assessments to gauge progress on reading skills.
They also do character-building lessons, picking a concept during each session, asking their students what that character trait means to them, and then reading scenarios where the trait was displayed.
The three tutors have total command of the room, but they’re also teenagers. The oldest — Darien Only — is 16 years old. They’re all Toledo Public Schools students, and all members of an organization that’s been rapidly growing in influence within the district: the Student African American Brotherhood.
Started in 1990 at Georgia Southwestern State University, SAAB focuses on developing young leaders and forming systems of accountability.
While open to students of every race, it has largely served as both a networking association and black male empowerment group.
Its headquarters are now at the University of Toledo, a move instigated by founder Tyrone Bledsoe’s tenure as an administrator there. Started as a collegiate program, SAAB has expanded to K-12, and nowhere is that more evident than Toledo. Under the leadership of interim Superintendent Romules Durant, SAAB started an explosive growth spurt in 2011.
The TPS chapter of SAAB is now the largest K-12 chapter in the country. Membership in SAAB and a sister program called the Young Women of Excellence, which started last year, is now about 900 and is set to grow larger.
Decked out in black and orange uniforms — or black and pink for girls — the two programs have chapters at many central and North Toledo schools. Members are fixtures at most public TPS events, with students reciting loudly and in unison mottoes such as “I am my brother’s and sister’s keeper, and together we will rise!”
Mr. Durant said he plans to more than double SAAB and YWOE, putting it in an additional 20 buildings next year. He hopes to grow membership to 3,000 students by the end of the school year. Total enrollment in TPS is about 22,000.
At the same time, SAAB’s name will change. From now on, the Student African American Brotherhood will be known as the Young Men of Excellence. Combined, YWOE and YMOE will be known as “The Family.”
Mr. Durant made that announcement Thursday at the first scholarship banquet for SAAB and YWOE.
Members performed, top students received scholarships to college, and members who’ve made turnarounds in their lives were honored.
Marvin Ford, 14, told attendees he joined a gang when he was 9. In school, he refused to do work and was in trouble most of the time. This year, the Reynolds Elementary student joined SAAB, he turned his grades around, and he was recently made president of his chapter.
Students have repeatedly said SAAB and YWOE serve as a magnet away from gangs for students. A Woodward High School SAAB member estimated that half the students in his chapter left gangs to join the brotherhood.
Even for students who weren’t in gangs, and those already on track for success, SAAB has had an impact.
“It changed my life,” Darien said.
Much of that change comes from other students. The programs are about peer relations.
Even though he’s older, Darien, a Toledo Technology Academy student, said he’s learned from Donovan about how to respect people.
Donovan already passed his Ohio Graduation Tests and knows he wants to study either marketing or psychology in college. He spoke eloquently about internalized views held by different social, ethnic, and economic groups, and how outside factors define those views.
He talks about how people don’t know the logic behind their own views, the reasoning behind their reasoning. Few other 15-year-olds talk about paradigm shifts. He wants to travel and study other cultures. He wants to, as he put it, develop “my own truth.”
Much of that, he got from SAAB.
While SAAB is historically a black institution and members in the TPS chapter are overwhelmingly African-American, there’s no prohibition against students from other races joining. The racial makeup has in large part been determined by where building chapters were opened, which has mostly been in central and northern Toledo.
Donovan said the Bowsher chapter has had students from several races join.
But a number of students said they believe the group’s name and its reputation as “for black kids” has depressed interest among some. The move from SAAB to YMOE is an attempt to open the program’s appeal to a broader demographic.
Anytime a program expands, there’s a risk it will lose core parts of its identity that made it strong. Both SAAB and YWOE, while not exclusive to African-Americans, have had a “for us, by us” feel. Of the hundreds of people at Thursday’s banquet, nearly all were black.
Students, though, believe “The Family” will only get stronger as it goes more places and adds more members.
“It’ll be reincarnated as a multiracial brotherhood,” Darien said.
Every chapter of the group is different, they said. While Bowsher’s chapter is more focused on college strategies and networking for students who mostly are already on the path to graduation, SAAB chapters in more depressed neighborhoods serve at times as almost an anti-gang program.
About half the members of Woodward High School’s SAAB, students said, are former gang members who left the lifestyle when they joined the program.
After school Wednesday at the Ella P. Stewart Academy for Girls, YWOE adviser LaDonna Knabbs tried last-minute changes to a song the girls were to perform at the banquet.
“Everywhere we go, people want to know, who we are, and what we do,” they sang. After each line, Ms. Knabbs or Principal Teresa Quinn yelled encouragement or direction.
“You need to be yelling it,” Ms. Quinn told them as they sang. “Everything we do we do with excellence.”
The girls moved forward and continued their chant.
“My sisters, what do we do? When we walk into the room, we own the room,” they said. Their arms swung over their heads, but not vigorously enough for their principal.
“Swing around with that attitude like you’re from Stewart! Act like you own it,” she yelled. “You know we’re going to bring it.”
Up front, friends Najae’ Pettaway and Jayona Wren served as leaders for the performance, helping to kick off the chants and dancing on the front lines. Neither minds taking the lead — YWOE is about developing leaders, after all — but they said they aren’t obsessed with the limelight.
“I’m nonchalant about it,” Jayona, 11, said.
Why do they like YWOE? Love. Friendship. Integrity. That’s standard among SAAB and YWOE members. Most say the program feels very much like a family.
“It’s a life-changer,” Jayona said. “You go in with an idea that if you really understand it, they’re your sister and they’ll be there for you.”
In terms of educational reform, those aren’t the things you expect to hear these days. Most efforts to improve test scores and close achievement gaps focus on more empirical concepts. Mr. Durant says students in SAAB and YWOE have seen significant increases in grades and shown decreased discipline rates.
Which may prove that focusing on test scores, instead of building children into adults, may be focusing on the symptoms, instead of the illness. Now, we’ll see if “The Family” is part of the cure.
Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6086, or on Twitter @NolanRosenkrans.