Starting with the Boys

Boone Center for the Family Builds a Model for Strengthening Inner-City School Life.

August 31, 2010  | 7 min read

By any standards Markham Middle School is in trouble. Chain-link fences surround the inner-city Watts school, keeping outside influences at bay while locking inside an uneasy chaos. More than 30 active rival gangs ring the school's campus, pervade the neighborhood, and impact its residents. Reported test scores for the students of Markham are among the lowest in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD).

During the 2006–2007 academic year, more than 500 students were suspended from Markham, at least half of those for "attempted physical harm," a figure made even more shocking by the fact that it includes 19 assaults on staff members. More recently an administrator was arrested, charged, and sentenced with molesting a student.

Throughout it all Markham's struggles have been no secret. When Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa launched the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools in 2008, Markham was one of his targets. The mayor set out to form a collaborative effort between the city and its school district to turn around 15 of L.A.'s lowest performing schools and create a model for doing so district-wide.

Despite its inclusion in what has become one of the largest public school turnaround projects in the nation, today Markham needs as much help as ever. Ongoing budgetary restrictions continue to plague the school, especially as high teacher turnover persists. National and local media outlets have shone a light on this issue in particular. As the Los Angeles Times reported in November 2009, "Even in these difficult times, many teachers would rather remain jobless than work at Markham Middle School."

It was in this precarious environment that new Markham principals Tim Sullivan and Precious Taylor Clifton reached out to Pepperdine University last year. Under the leadership of executive director Ken Canfield, the Pat and Shirley Boone Center for the Family responded with its most aggressive inner-city program yet: the "Men of Markham" project.

Markham faculty and administrators struggle with the same—though amplified—problems of any middle school: how do we motivate students? How do we help keep them on track towards high school, college, and successful lives? How do we help empower them to resist temptations like drugs and crime?

Canfield has a theory about where to start: the family. As founder of the National Center for Fathering and an authority on, among many other things, the negative consequences of father absence, Canfield has dedicated years of work and research to exploring the influence that father-figures and strong, male role models have on young boys. The relationship is especially impactful in the inner cities, where such individuals are too often in short supply. "If you want to change the inner city in a powerful way, you have to help families," Canfield insists. "And if you want to help families, you would be wise to start with the boys."

Canfield envisioned a program that could set a new course for the young men of Markham Middle School, providing them an opportunity to see another future beyond that prescribed by their current environment. He rallied his team at the Boone Center to develop curriculum and launched a systematic project designed to equip and empower the boys with tools necessary to cultivate what they describe as "healthy manhood."

Seaver College alumni Julian Williams ('09) and Jonathan Winder ('08) undertook three months of research and literature review on programs that have made a difference elsewhere. "We went to the Bible too," Williams says. "What does the Bible say about manhood, both in examples of biblical characters and in instruction from the disciples and from Jesus Christ himself? What instructions were men given on how to be men?"

The team eventually developed a model based on a house. The house is built on a foundation—trust—and has four walls, or pillars: respect, self-control, service, and leadership. "The roof is family," Williams explains. "Without a strong foundation, you can't develop these four walls. Without all five, you can't hold up and support your family."

Allocating one of seven weekly sessions to each component of the house, the Boone team worked with the boys to gain an understanding of each virtue's definition, how it is nurtured, and who models it (drawing on examples from history, poetry, music, and art, in addition to familiar individuals). The interactive sessions focused on helping the boys apply these lessons to their own lives.

Boone Center researcher Sean Wang (MA '10) remembers the session on self-control as among the most challenging. "At Markham no one understood self-control," recalls Wang, whose area of expertise is emotional regulation and pro-social behaviors. "That's a big factor in antisocial behavior; it's linked to violence, criminal behavior. The students asked, 'what are temptations?' They didn't understand what the word meant."

Wang described to the boys the famous 1960s Stanford marshmallow experiment, which tracked the ability of children to resist the sugary temptation when delayed consequences (and gratification) were presented to them. He showed them medical photographs of brains damaged by drugs and alcohol, and recounted how years of learning martial arts helped him feel emotionally strong during his own childhood when he was bullied. Conversation honed in on topics from studying and completing homework assignments to not shoplifting or getting drunk—all about how choices made now have important consequences down the line, and each person has the ability to impact their own future.

Trust proved to be another powerful discussion. "The first time we talked about trust we asked, 'who can you trust?'" Williams remembers. "We expected the Sunday school answers: family members, teachers. 'Your mom?' I suggested. Then Tyler, the most outspoken person in the room, as well as the smartest and a born leader, said very quietly, 'I don't trust her at all. I don't trust anyone.' His head was down, looking at the table. It was not his demeanor at all. So I brought it up again later. This time he answered, 'myself.' He probably thought it was an answer of strength, but it came from a vulnerable place."

To help offset the vulnerability secretly shared in common by Tyler and his classmates, the Boone Center partnered with Markham administrators to enlist support from male role models in the community. Local figures were invited to the introductory session and encouraged to maintain contact with the boys after the program concluded. "Positive role models are not absent, they have just been silenced," Williams says. "After six or seven weeks we leave, and our biggest concern is that the tools we have given them stick. Those guys keep the kids on track."

Mentorship from community members and the Boone men themselves helped effect the exact change the Markham administrators had sought. "They really gave the students an idea of what it could be like down the road for them. They have to see different futures as a possibility for them," says former assistant principal Clifton. "We saw the calming on the campus, a shift in their thinking: 'I'm not hanging out, I'm not trying to cut class. I'm going to class so I can go to college.' The kids were excited and happy when they started talking to men in the community. It gave them something to look forward to."

Markham is, of course, just one among many schools struggling to nurture students in a difficult environment, so while the Boone team developed the course work for Markham, they also piloted the program at a Los Angeles-area World Impact school. The faith-based urban impact program, known for requiring its staff members to reside in the community in which they serve, provided a chance for the team to tailor their program to boys with related but not identical needs.

It is just part of the growth that the Boone team envisions for their program. They will soon begin their second session at Markham and World Impact, aiming to expand service opportunities and field trips geared towards giving the boys a look outside their own community. The Boone team is developing a bound workbook for the students to mark up and keep, rather than the handouts used previously. They also plan to build curriculum for girls and recruit female team members to operate the program. "We want it to be a program that we can do at any inner-city school," Williams says. "We want it to be a local resource, but also one that we can package and distribute."

Wang, meanwhile, is generating a survey to measure self-control and emotional regulation among the children before and after the program. "We went through 117 studies and narrowed 250 questions down to just 13. We're amassing data for a normative sample to learn: do we have an impact on the ability of these boys to say 'no' to themselves and their impulses? Are we seeing a change in these kids?"

The answer, so far, is yes.


Ken CanfieldConsistency:

A Key to Change

By Ken Canfield

After our first meeting at Markham, one young man bet one of his friends that we wouldn't be back. For sure, there was the typical awkwardness in getting a suitable meeting room, dealing with crowd control, and outlining our plans for the next seven weeks, but the commitment to see this through was unyielding. We did come back. Even though we got bumped around between schedules and venues, we kept coming and when we finished the course, the young man who made the bet confessed, "I was surprised you guys kept showing up."

To strengthen young men and women, particularly those who live in challenging environments, half of the battle is "showing up."Fail at this and other forces (gangs, unhealthy behaviors, damaging attitudes, unwholesome media, etc.) will show up and challenge your resolve.

Being consistent is a quality the next generation yearns to see. It's a trait which distinguishes healthy households. When fathers are predictable in their moods and presence, their children in most cases flourish. Conversely, unpredictability and inconsistency will undermine the potential of a child.

I will never forget the comment I heard from an incarcerated man, who grew up in a neighborhood much like Markham. "When my dad left, everything started to crumble. My sisters got pregnant and ran away, and I dropped out of school and ended up in prison. It's taken me years to get over it, and I still cringe when I think of what could have been."

For the teachers and administrators who "show up" week after week, year after year, and decade after decade, to teach, challenge, and serve students at Markham and similar schools; we salute you. Your dependable and consistent service makes you a true hero in our urban schools, and instills hope during these difficult times.


Bill Beazley, chair of the Boone Center for the Family Advisory Committee

Bill BeazleyFifty years ago my high school, George Washington High School, into which Markham Middle School feeds today, was a different world. My school gave me opportunity and equipped me to make life decisions. That reality has changed today. Washington and Markham continue to be tragedies. It's crucial to build mentored integrity into the kids, to give them a sense of something other than the gangs, the ability to take in an educational effort. That's missing. It's a privilege to be in a place to both watch and encourage what I would call the well-meaning outreach, the augmentation to an educational process. It takes a person to make a difference in another person's life.

The Pat and Shirley Boone Center for the Family is committed to educating and equipping students, leaders, and influencers with resources and research to strengthen families and promote healthy relationships. family.pepperdine.edu