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UIX: Larry Johnson brings personal, professional experience to GRPS' G2G program

Larry Johnson is making a difference in the lives of young men with the Grade School to Grad School program, pairing local male mentors in the black and Hispanic communities with at-need students in the GRPS school district. Matthew Russell finds out how this new initiative aims to make a big difference.
Larry Johnson has spent 17 years “on either side of the fence,” as he puts it—first in law enforcement, then in education. Now assistant superintendent and executive director of public safety and security for Grand Rapids Public Schools, he’s excited about making a difference in the lives of young men with the school system’s Grade School to Grad School (G2G) program.
“I’ve seen some young people make terrible mistakes out here. When I was out there as a police officer, I never felt we could arrest our way out of the problem, just like now I don’t feel we can suspend our way out of the problem,” Johnson says. “Be it bad decisions people make on the criminal side or bad decisions young people make on the educational side, it’s going to take the entire community to fix that.”
That’s the impetus behind G2G, a program pairs local male leaders in the black and Hispanic communities working as mentors with young men enrolled in the GRPS school district. It began as a discussion on the retention issues with college-aged men among educators from Grand Rapids Community College, Davenport University and other local institutions, Johnson says, and led to a concentration on the cycle of underachievement in learning often beginning with a lack of consistent and committed male leadership roles in black and Hispanic students’ lives, which G2G aims to address.
“Individuals were coming to the campuses and were struggling. Because they were in remedial classes at the college level, it typically extended their college life,” Johnson says. “If those programs weren’t corrected quickly, those individuals would run out of financial aid before they reached the end of their academic careers, which meant for a lot of them there would be no degree.”
From the K-12 standpoint, Johnson says, the problem is also being perpetuated when unprepared young men are being sent to colleges and universities.
Along with Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal, Johnson and other members of a small committee have been meeting at least twice a month since October 2014 to build interest and participants in G2G. Around 75 mentors are now being dispersed in five pilot schools: Ottawa Hills High School, Brookside Elementary, Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Academy, Alger Middle School, and Mulick Park Elementary. There, teachers and principals will match them up with students in need of mentoring or guidance, and the program will begin to form a new cycle.
Johnson says it’s not that they aren’t concerned with the female student population, or males of other race, for that matter, it’s just that the research has shown the best place to start is with black and Hispanic young men in the district.
“It was just clear—it was jumping out at us—that we have a very underachieving subgroup in our district and it was really impacting learning,” he says.
The G2G committee wanted to look at young people from the time they entered school to the time they graduated high school and beyond, giving them the necessary tools that would help them become successful throughout their entire academic career.
“That meant connecting individuals with tutors, with additional counseling, with opportunities to read, community service, and whatever else it takes to get these young men on track,” Johnson says.

After almost six months of research and meeting in this small group to develop G2G, the committee sent the call for positive male mentors out through social media, through community centers and churches, and to local businesses.
We wanted to engage men in our community who are successful, and men who are currently in college who can also come back and mentor or tutor young people,” Johnson says. “We didn’t want this to be the typical tutoring program; we wanted this to be a commitment. It’s not a one- or two-year commitment; this could be a four- or five-year commitment. We want individuals who commit to the program to be ready to commit for the long haul.”
A variety of individuals have signed on to the G2G commitment, including law enforcement officers, educators, doctors, and some young men who have overcome struggles in their lives “but have come back from those struggles and have learned how to navigate the system,” Johnson says. “They want to come back and help individuals avoid the barriers they hit when they were younger.”
There is no hierarchy in the pool of leaders, Johnson says, as they want to show a cooperative and concerted effort in helping students succeed.
“We believe that we are all equals and in order to make this program work we all have to do this together,” he says. “We can’t show any separatism to those young men. That’s one of the things that have hindered them in the past—when leaders have not done what was needed to be done.”
The mentors work with positive skill development methods similar to those used in the Rite of Passage program, a national organization aimed at helping troubled and at-risk youth, to assist them at every level. That means they intend to keep in touch with mentees after high school graduation as well.
“It could be as simple as writing a letter, sending a care package, helping them find summer internships or summer jobs; we want to stay connected to them,” Johnson says. “That’s why our business community becomes so important, because we want to show our business community here in Grand Rapids that we do have prospective workers in this community who are educated. We want to show these young men that if they go out and prepare themselves for a career, they have the opportunity to come back to their community and work.”
Johnson says he is personally excited about G2G because he’s come into contact with many young men who he believes could benefit greatly from the program.
“I’m the father of a young man, a 22-year-old now, who’s had the advantage of having a father who was active in his life, but I think many of our young men, including some of his friends, have struggled,” Johnson says. “I noticed a common denominator in them when they came to sit around my house—they wanted to sit and talk because they didn’t have that adult male in their life who wanted to talk to them. I’m glad it’s going to give these young men the opportunity to talk and work through some things, hopefully some frustrations, so there’s no appearance that they don’t care about education. They do.”
But as the road to redesigning the way our educational system works is a long one, so is the process of breaking down stereotypes, Johnson says.
“We want to remove the stereotype that they don’t care about life after high school because they do. We want to help break down some of those stereotypes and give these young people a chance,” he says. “I’m excited to be a part of it and excited for some of the other men who have graciously given their time. More importantly, I’m excited about the young people in the community who want to take the opportunity to tap into some older individuals who have figured out how to navigate the issues of life.”
For more information about G2G, along with the efforts of Johnson and others, visit http://www.grps.org/g2g.

Matthew Russell is the Project Editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at matthew@uixgrandrapids.com.

Photography courtesy of The Target Group
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