Westerville North High School senior Dezmon Howard sat among the group of Heritage Middle School sixth-graders, leading them in a discussion about uncommon rewards.
He prompted them with questions about respect, encouraged them to think about true manhood and explained why it’s important to be active in your community, school and sports teams. He then turned to each of the six middle-schoolers sitting at his table with a question: “If you work hard, you can do what?”
“I can achieve my goals,” one student said.
Howard posed the same question to fellow WNHS senior Justin Spade, who stood near the group.
Spade then addressed the table. Look at me, he said.
He pointed out his height and narrow frame. He called attention to using one hand as the other has a congenital disorder: “It’s not really in my favor for sports, right?”
“I’m playing college football next year. That’s kind of crazy, right?”
In nearby tables across Heritage’s media center on Tuesday, male WNHS athletes have launched similar conversations with their younger peers at Heritage to support them as they prepare for high school.
As part of a new district-wide peer-mentoring program called The Decision, Tim Brown, a former basketball coach turned educator for Columbus City Schools, works with male students at each of the high schools to connect and mentor a select group of younger peers at all four middle schools.
The mentoring program, which is similar to models Brown launched at WNHS last year and at other Central Ohio schools, takes concepts from his book, “Boys Won’t Be Boys,” and seeks to help boys become “uncommon men.”
“We want to encourage and uplift the boys and give them words of advice whenever they are going to high school,” Howard said. “It’s about being athletes, good leaders in school and being representative of your peers.”
Anitra Simmons, the district's Educational Equity coordinator, said the mentoring program stemmed from an interest among the middle school leaders to support their male students.
“Research has proven that if you can provide a mentor you can increase a sense of belonging which ultimately can impact a student's overall achievement.”
After reviewing a variety of proposals, the group decided to work with Brown, who was willing to create a peer-mentoring program at each of the middle schools with high school mentors. The project is funded through money the Treasurer’s office has earmarked to support school equity initiatives through the District Equity Team.
As part of the program, high school students meet with a group of 60 to 80 middle schoolers once a week for six weeks. Each middle school will host six-week sessions for each grade level, resulting in as many as 240 students receiving mentoring support through the end of the school year.
High school students who were nominated by teachers and staff to serve as mentors were invited to participate. Meanwhile, middle school mentees selected for the program were identified as potential leaders as well as those who need additional academic or behavioral support.
Westerville South High School students have been paired with peers at Blendon Middle School while Westerville Central High School students connect with boys at Genoa Middle School. The WNHS group also meets with students at Walnut Springs Middle School.
District leaders hope middle school boys gain a sense of belonging in school and recognize they are part of a community through their connection with high school leaders. They hope these conversations impact how they do in the classroom and behave in the building.
“Middle school is a challenging time regardless of the circumstances but what we found is our young men post-COVID need a little extra hand-hold on the mountain,” Heritage Principal Dr. Dru Tomlin said. “We really feel this mentoring program, this advocacy program is really helping them to express themselves in a respectful way, talk about difficult issues and helping them become the leaders they can be and that they will be.”
It’s so important that these messages are coming from high school students, too.
“Middle school students sometimes tune out adult voices and so what we’re finding is the high school voices of kids who have been there and done that have been sixth-graders very recently – they tend to listen to those voices even more,” Tomlin said. “It’s awesome for those high schoolers to take time out of their day to help our scholars with that work.”