Boys of destinyWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | email@example.com
Chad Kolebuck, principal of Martin Luther King Jr. Academy for Boys off Dorr Street, arrives at work two hours before school starts. He has plenty of prep work, but that’s not his sole reason for being there early; he makes sure he is there because so many parents will drop off their kids, leaving them to stand outside the locked doors. Kolebuck has often found himself at the school more than two hours after classes have been dismissed, staying with students whose parents leave them at the building until well after the last classroom light has been turned off.
The Scott feeder school, built in 2009, is well-lit, open and a marvelous example of efficient use of space. On the inside, it still feels new and hopeful and encouraging. On the outside, the building, which houses kindergarten through fifth grade (it will expand through eighth grade next year), is bordered by several abandoned and boarded-up houses and a liquor/convenience store phonetically named “Dis ‘n’ Dat.” The school is planted squarely between two gang corners; many of its students walk an unimaginable gantlet every day.
On March 29, I spent the morning at MLK in a Partners in Education program as a “Principal for a Day.” I job-shadowed Kolebuck, 39, and dean Willie Ward as they patrolled the halls and managed the ebb and flow of the morning.
Kolebuck said 98 percent of the school’s 275 students depend on the school for breakfast. As they line up, Kolebuck walks among them, asking them to remove their hats, to stand up straight. He gently admonishes those who fail to respond to his “Good morning” greeting and makes sure those who are introduced to me offer a firm handshake.
The students can choose from fruit, various cereals and other breakfast options. When two young boys arrive just before class starts, Kolebuck shoos them toward class. Then, he stops and calls back to them.
“Have you two eaten yet?” he asks. When both boys say no, Kolebuck walks them toward the cafeteria and makes sure they can grab food before their day begins.
Many of the students at MLK wear belts, socks, coats, and clothes the school and its supporters have provided. Most of the students are dressed appropriately for the weather, but it is easy to spot the ones who are coming in cold or could use better-fitting clothes.
As the first hour of the day passes, Kolebuck interacts with close to 80 students, and knows the names of every one. When he passes a group, he will often call, “Boys of destiny,” which results in a proud response of “Men of distinction!” from the boys. That is the crux of the school’s mantra, along with an emphasis on respect and building relationships.
In addition to basic food and clothing needs, the school deals with countless challenges that fall outside the realm of reading, writing and arithmetic. Ward estimates about one-third of the school’s students use school-provided asthma inhalers, because their home environments are filled with smoke and other toxins. He also discussed an ongoing issue with several students who are given a bottle of Coca-Cola to slam down for breakfast at home.
“That caffeine hits those little bodies and creates an incontinence problem,” Kolebuck said. “They can’t always give voice to the specific issue so they end up in the nurse’s office.”
The issue of parental responsibility — or lack thereof — permeates nearly every factor of life at MLK. For many students, attendance is a problem. Lack of support and follow-up at home is a problem. One student had missed accumulated weeks of school; Kolebuck and Ward theorized the fifth grader was being kept at home to help his parent with younger siblings.
Word of MLK’s success is spreading; in the few hours I trailed Kolebuck, six applications for students seeking transfers in were received. Observing a few classrooms makes it easy to see why the school is reaching students. The classrooms I observed had invested and engaged teachers, volunteers and “foster grandparents” to keep the kids focused on their lessons, plus computers and technology that acts like Smartboards. I witnessed an atmosphere designed to make every student feel cared for and cared about.
I have avoided describing Kolebuck and Ward for fear of hyping them as larger-than-life educators; they have enough issues to deal with; they do not need an interloper to mythologize their efforts. But the two men can walk out to face a gang of red-shirted Bloods and keep them away from school property, then spend time trying to figure out why a normally good student is calling for attention by defacing school property; that suggests a combination of physical toughness and intellectual gentleness usually found in Hollywood heroes, not elementary school administrators.
That same day, I spoke at the reception for the conclusion of the United Way/Toledo Free Press/”Bridges” series, “Education Champions.” I oversaw every story in the 12-part series, and was often stunned by the facts and situations they contained. But to walk the halls of MLK and see the promise of that series brought to life by Kolebuck and Ward exponentially increased my faith in the human ability to overcome the most depressing and limiting challenges.
I reflected many times that day — and every day since — on how blessed my sons are, and how determined my wife and I are to make sure they will have — and appreciate — every advantage of love and support we can provide.
God bless them all. Boys of destiny. Men of distinction.
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tags: 13abc, Bill Kitson, Bridges, Doni Miller, Education Champions, Lighting The Fuse, Martin Luther King Jr. Academy for Boys, Michael S. Miller, Partners in Education, Toledo Public Schools, United Way