At 6-foot-1 and 280 pounds, 15-year-old Tyler Wilkerson has never been afraid of a fight. But now he has a tougher challenge: learning how to change his behavior.
So far, it's working. After being suspended for fighting last year, Tyler's anger is under control, his grade-point average is up and he likes the thought of being a role model for other students at Hoover High School in Fresno.
He has been making progress with the help of a new program called Men's Alliance, a pilot program that Fresno Unified School District is testing this year as an elective class at Hoover, Edison and Sunnyside high schools. The program is modeled after a similar program in Long Beach Unified, which has a working partnership with Fresno.
About 75 young men -- 20 to 25 at each school -- are enrolled. The program provides students who have had discipline problems and often poor grades with extra guidance and support from a group of counselors and teachers.
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"They make me feel like I have all the potential in the world," Tyler said. "I am actually trying harder this year."
Over the summer, Fresno Unified officials began compiling lists of students for the inaugural classes. Teachers, counselors and principals helped identify potential candidates, said Darrin Person, Fresno Unified's mentor coordinator. Students were strongly encouraged to participate. Because it is an elective class, they can opt out; however, only a handful have.
The district has worked hard in recent years to reduce the number of suspensions and deal with students with disciplinary problems before they get into more trouble.
Suspensions cost students, district
The costs that suspensions pose to both the district and students are substantial: The district loses $1 million a year in daily attendance funds, and many of the students wind up dropping out of school. The district's dropout rate in the 2007-08 school year, the most recent information available, was about 26%.
The problem affects some kinds of students more than others, Person said. Boys are more likely to be suspended than girls. And African-Americans account for 24% of suspensions among boys, although they make up less than 11% of the district's student population. By comparison, Hispanics account for 58% of suspensions among boys but make up 62% of the district's student population.
School officials say many of the students cited for disciplinary problems share common traits, such as a troubled home life. They often hang with other troubled kids and generally lack guidance. About half are from single-parent homes.
"A lot of the guys don't have positive male role models," Person said. To counter that, the teachers working with Men's Alliance are all men.
Many of the students have been identified as leaders among their peers, but they aren't always leading in a positive direction, Person said. The goal of the class is to build on those leadership skills.
The program focuses on personal improvement and includes lessons on etiquette, public speaking and job-interview skills. Students receive extra help with both in-class and after-school tutoring.
They learn to take pride in their appearance and dress professionally: One day a week, students must dress in a shirt and tie; on another day, they wear polo shirts embroidered with the Men's Alliance logo.
The clothing is purchased by the district with some of the $87,000 set aside for the program. The money also covers field trips, leadership retreats and staff training.
Reaching teachers, too
Joshua Daniels, 17, is the only senior in the Men's Alliance class at Sunnyside. He admits he hasn't been the best student -- last year he was suspended three times for fighting. He spent part of the year in continuation school.
Vice principal Mark Beebe recommended Joshua for Men's Alliance even though it was supposed to be for younger students. He said he knew Joshua had potential to succeed.
"Some of the kids have a spirit inside them; they just don't know how to get it out," Beebe said.
Joshua has already improved his grades. He hopes to do well enough to play football. He said his relationship with his mother has improved.
"It has showed me more confidence," he said of the program. "It has given me more light, more hope for my future."
Cristian Mejia, a 16-year-old junior at Sunnyside, has seen similar improvement. He was suspended last year and his grades were mostly F's.
"My attitude is much better," said Cristian. And he doesn't complain about shirt-and-tie day, saying he likes to dress up.
Students didn't have to be strong-armed to be in Men's Alliance. But it took some convincing to sign up Sunnyside teacher Mark Hetherington, a P.E. teacher who coaches football and baseball.
"I had a little bit of reservation," he said, noting that he is more comfortable with sports. But school officials believed he could relate to the male students.
Hetherington said he's glad he accepted the challenge. He enjoys working the students and knows they can -- and will -- go far: "Most students will rise to expectations."
Fresno Unified will monitor the program this year and decide whether to expand it, possibly opening it up to younger students.
Officials at Long Beach Unified -- just starting year three of the program -- said it works.
"We know because overall GPAs \ have increased," said Quentin Brown, coordinator of Long Beach's Male Academy -- the model for Fresno's Men's Alliance.
Brown, a graduate of Fresno's Roosevelt High School, said students are no longer skipping classes and they have a connection to each other in the class, a brotherhood.
"We know that students feel more connected to school and feel like they are more accountable," he said.
Back at Sunnyside, 14-year-old Dayshon Beard talks about how he spent time in juvenile hall. He lives with his aunt and has not had an easy life -- he lost his mother to cancer at age 5 and sports an "R.I.P." tattoo on his hand in her memory.
But Dayshon's grades are improving and his home life is better. He summed up in one word the biggest lesson he has learned in the class: "Respect."
Tyler, the Hoover High student with a penchant for confrontation, is a different person since enrolling in Men's Alliance, said his mother, Deitra Sullivan.
"He has more confidence. He tries to work things out," she said. "Instead of getting frustrated or angry, he writes poems and tries to rationalize."