There is a group of 12 young men on the Southern University New Orleans campus who stand out from the rest of their classmates. On some days, they wear slacks and blazers to class and generally try to hold themselves to a standard usually reserved for men much older.
They are part of Southern University system President Ronald Mason’s pilot program to boost black male achievement around the country.
The 18- and 19-year-olds are the first class participating in the Honoré Center for Undergraduate Student Achievement, a program named after retired Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, a Baton Rouge resident who was largely praised for his no-nonsense role in evacuating and securing New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
The program started in August for who some call at-risk students. Southern University, however, describes them as hidden stars. The initial 12 participants were selected from a pool of applicants who came from disadvantaged backgrounds but have demonstrated significant academic potential.
The residential program pays for their on-campus living expenses and provides them with counseling to help them navigate college. In return, the men will have to work at least two years as teachers after they graduate.
Donald Brown, 19, is one of those students. The aspiring cardiac surgeon said he comes from a high school in Boutte with a high dropout rate and where a large number of his peers sold drugs.
“It seemed hopeless at times, but I didn’t want to go down that road,” Brown said. “I didn’t want to be a part of those statistics.”
Brown and his classmates are the model for what Mason calls his “Five-Fifths Agenda for America,” a remedy for the large number of young black males who find themselves out of college and often in prison.
The name, Five-Fifths draws its meaning from the “Three-Fifths Compromise” formula agreed upon by northern and southern states during the 1787 Constitutional Convention. The agreement counted slaves as three-fifths of a person as a means to decide state representation in Congress.
Mason said his Five-Fifths plan is about “changing America’s business model” and “reclaiming and developing black male human capital.”
If the plan works, Mason said it will increase the number of black male college graduates, create large numbers of black male teachers and establish Historically Black Colleges and Universities as “institutional bases for systemic change.”
Mason said he was inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote on the paradox of slavery.
Jefferson’s quote says: “We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”
Mason said a “light bulb turned” on in his head when he first heard the quote.
“This was a conscious business decision the founding fathers made to put justice aside to build a new country, and we’re still paying the price for it,” he said.
The U.S. has a history, Mason said, of intentionally stifling black male potential, from slavery to Jim Crow to the current War on Drugs.
“We have a system that has persisted since slavery with the object of controlling black labor ... before morphing into a system of control and it is eliminating black labor because it’s not needed anymore,” he said.
Persistent poverty and ever toughening penal policies over the last several decades has contributed to the U.S. having the highest incarceration rate in the world. A 2010 Pew Research Center report shows that one in 12 black men in America are incarcerated, while one in nine black children have at least one parent in jail.
Mason said his goal is for the Honoré Center’s structured approach to education to become a model that can be replicated at HBCUs across the country.
He said he hopes to raise $3 million in public and private funds to continue the pilot program at SUNO and to start another program at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., early next year.
SUNO’s program started with $500,000 in funding from the Legislature. State Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, said it started out as a conversation to help the Southern University System recruit more students.
“We were looking at black males and seeing how many of them were not really going to college,” Smith said. “This was an opportunity for them to experience college life and become college graduates.”
Honoré Center Director Warren Bell said the program is designed to be rigorous with strict daily schedules, mandatory study halls three times per week, group counseling at least once a week and tutoring.
Students aren’t allowed to leave campus during the week, and “we pretty much know their whereabouts day and night,” Bell said. “Most of them never had a man at home. They came to us with baggage and damage that most of us couldn’t imagine.”
The program requires that each student sign a contract agreeing that much of the financial support they receive is in the form of a forgivable loan. The young men also agree to complete an undergraduate degree in Education or another approved discipline combined with a teaching certificate.
After completing the minimum two years of classroom teaching in a New Orleans public school, the Honoré Center loans are forgiven.
One student, William Williams, 19, said he doesn’t mind the strict rules the program places on him and his classmates.
“It’s a great experience being in a school with people who want the same thing as me,” the aspiring teacher said. “The statistics say that young black males don’t want anything out of life, that we’ll either be dead or in jail by 18. All of us here want more. We have a mutual mindset.”