Time for a break from politics, because we all could use one.
Instead, let’s check in on the Gentlemen of Knowledge, that group of Rivercrest High students who are changing their corner of the world one student at a time – and maybe showing other parts of the state how best to improve their schools as well.
I’ve written about these guys twice before and will continue to do so as long as your newspaper gives me the space and I can find a place on the internet to put it.
The group started at the end of the 2010 school year, when teacher Lindsey Kelley had this crazy idea after looking at the northeast Arkansas district’s low test scores among minorities: Why not ask the students themselves how to solve the problem? One grade at a time, African-American students were called into the library for frank, positive discussions. Two outstanding student leaders, Terrian Tyler and Robert Cooney, calmly detailed the disparity in test scores between white and black students and asked for suggestions on improving the situation.
Afterwards, those two and other African-American male students formed the Gentlemen of Knowledge. Their mission was to hold each other accountable while serving as role models. Their motto is "Impossible," a bridging of the words, "I’m possible." Kelley is their sponsor.
The result of all this was that academics became cool at Rivercrest. Minority scores in the state’s benchmark exam in 11th grade literacy, which was the focus, rose dramatically last year and rose again this year. Test scores among white students increased this year as well after falling the year before. Scores also increased among economically disadvantaged students.
That’s the back story. Let’s catch up. Tyler is now a biological engineering major at the University of Arkansas. I’m not sure what that is, but I think he’s going to make more money than a newspaper columnist does. Cooney is an aeronautical engineering major at the same university, so I guess he’ll be designing and building airplanes. The two other original seniors, twins Ty and Tay Baber, are also in college – Ty at Arkansas Tech studying graphic design, and Tay at the University of Central Arkansas studying communications and sports management.
The rest of the Gentlemen are still in high school and still actively involved in the group, which has grown from nine to 15 and will invite more freshmen to join later this school year. Five of the students are white.
The young men stay busy. They are working on a program to help students who are transitioning from the eighth to ninth grades understand their new responsibilities. They will organize a shoe drive to raise money for building water wells in impoverished countries. They have spoken several times in Little Rock and once in Washington, D.C., but they are careful to limit their activities lest it detract from their studies. First things first.
Now there is a Gentlemen of Knowledge at Nettleton Junior High School in Jonesboro. Teacher Kathy Byrd was already meeting with a group of students each Friday when she learned of the Gentlemen from a fellow teacher who had taught at Rivercrest. The groups met, and relationships formed.
The Nettleton students have been inspired by Rivercrest, but they also are creating their own identity. They adopted their own mission and motto, "Live up to your name." They raised money in a charity ball for young women in crisis and for a teacher whose husband is battling cancer. They’re serving as leaders and role models, too. One of the young men recently stopped a fight from happening in school, Byrd said. There is also a girls group, the Ladies of Distinction, that mentors at-risk younger girls.
Nettleton’s Gentlemen have a standing invitation to go to Johannesburg, South Africa, to speak to both public and private schools. They’re hoping to go in May or June of next year, but they haven’t made much progress raising the $2,000 per student they’ll need just for the plane tickets – not because they don’t want to try, but because they can’t help focusing their efforts on the immediate needs they see around them in Jonesboro.
The takeaway from all this? In education, and probably in every other walk of life, solutions come best from within. All the policy reforms that have been tried and the billions of dollars that have been spent on schools – some of that’s been necessary and some of it’s been great. But what really matters is having students who want to learn, to serve, and to reach their potential. That’s more likely to happen when it’s inspired than when it’s imposed.
So we’re caught up for now with the Gentlemen of Knowledge at Rivercrest High and Nettleton Junior High. Could similar groups form across the state? Nothing is impossible.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org