Twice a month, the boys gather in a room at Lake Gibson Middle School, where Ernest Joe is waiting for them.
“Mr. Joe” knows many of the youths quite well. He began serving as their mentor while they were students at Wendell Watson Elementary, and has followed them here to Lake Gibson Middle. Joe’s plan is to stick around until these boys finish high school, in the hope they will see him as one of many educators truly invested in their future.
“That’s the whole goal,” says Joe, a towering former principal and football coach, who famously coached NFL Hall of Famer Ray Lewis at Kathleen High.
“If they understand what we are trying to teach them and apply that daily, if they just keep close to their vest what we’re teaching them … they’re going to be successful.”
The long-term effort is part of Joe’s current role as director of Equity and Diversity Management for Polk County Public Schools. The department’s objectives include creating mentoring programs for at-risk students.
The value of a good mentor can’t be overstated, says Jimmy Downing, a behavior interventionist who works with Joe at Lake Gibson Middle. “Mr. Joe was one of my mentors growing up, so this is like giving back, paying forward what was poured into me,” he said.
Although the program at LGMS has only been running since September, Downing says that most of the boys are making slow, steady progress.
About 20 students participate in the twice-monthly sessions. The program is based on the lessons of renowned author and educator Ron Clark, and focuses on a mix of academics, behavior and life skills.
“It’s baby steps,” Downing says. “Some of the young men wouldn’t even talk to you at first, and now you can have a conversation with them. A lot of the kids wouldn’t do something as simple as shake your hand or look you in the eye, but a lot of them do that now, and they don’t mind speaking up in class, because they’ve gotten used to speaking in front of each other.”
“It’s small victories, but we’ll take it.”
Downing and Joe are especially proud that one of their students is set to receive an About-Face Award next Wednesday. The annual honor is presented to one student from each PCPS middle and high school to recognize those who make significant turnarounds in their academics, attendance or behavior.
“We still have a lot of work to do, but I see growth,” Joe says. “They look forward to that special time we spend with them. You’re building relationships so they know that wherever they go in life, they can come back and see Mr. Joe and Mr. Downing.”
“You just take the time you have with them, and go from there.”