Looking sharp is not just for looks
For a group of boys at Lincoln Park Middle School, dressing their best is a common occurrence. Sixth graders Kwe Perry and Mat Ojeda can often be seen around the school wearing dress shirts and ties on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
"The way we dress shows people who we are. If we dress properly, we are showing people that we're trying to be proper and it's a sign of respect to others," Perry said.
The boys are members of "Guys with Ties," a new sixth-grade boys' leadership program sponsored by the Twin Ports African American Men's Group. The program is designed to help the young men mature as leaders in the school and succeed academically.
The group meets for an hour after school twice a week. The first half-hour is dedicated to leadership activities and the second half is homework help time. If the boys do not have homework, they are required to read for 20 minutes and fill out a short worksheet to encourage reading comprehension.
"We encourage the boys to put academics first and give them the time to really focus on that," said Cal Harris, Guys with Ties leader and integration specialist with the Duluth school district.
Mat Ojeda says he likes having the time to work on extra credit projects.
"Now that I'm in Guys with Ties, if I ever do have any work or extra credit, that gives me time to work on it. I've been getting some extra credit. Since I've been in Guys with Ties, my third quarter my grades have been really good," Ojeda said.
Kwe Perry has found a new focus on academics.
"I was never really trying to get work done before. I felt like I had more important things to do. But now the guys have been showing me that I actually need to get stuff done so I can get better places in life," Perry said.
The program was inspired by the late Vance Hopkins, who was an assistant principal at both Central High School and Ordean East Middle School. Harris said Hopkins had a group of young men he mentored. Hopkins would encourage the students to dress in shirts and ties to show respect for their teachers and fellow classmates.
Harris said Hopkins approached him and another integration specialist about the idea, prompting them to start a group at Laura MacArthur Elementary School.
Because of Hopkins's 2012 death, "It means a lot to us to keep this going and trying to improve the program every year," Harris said.
Harris transferred to East High School last year and was unable to keep the program going at Laura MacArthur. This fall, he and fellow integration specialist Marlon Grant restarted the program at Lincoln Park and have 10 consistent members in the group.
"The transition from elementary school to middle school is a difficult period. The boys are finding their identities at this time and going through puberty, etc. It's a crucial time for us to try to help these students to be successful and provide resources and activities for them," Harris said.
The boys are encouraged to wear shirts and ties to every meeting. Why so?
"If you dress well, you feel better about yourself, people will notice you. We've had the principal give positive comments to the students and they feel better about themselves because they hear positive things throughout the school," said Grant.
The group has also opened up opportunities for the boys to learn about the government. In January, the boys traveled with local community leaders to St. Paul for African Heritage Day on the Hill at the Capitol. The boys met with representative Mary Murphy and learned about how she represents them.
"Going to St. Paul was pretty fun. I'd never been to the Capitol building before," Ojeda said.
Local leader Henry Banks rode on the same charter bus down with the boys and was impressed by the group.
"It was their behavior that stood out. It was exemplary. They are good examples," Banks said.
The main purpose of the group is to teach young men to be leaders and role models through their actions and to pay it forward.
"Next year we're going to be higher in the school rank, so we need to be good examples for the new kids by getting good grades, having good attitudes towards school and not bullying younger kids," Perry said.