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Partners in Education: The Golden Knights change a school

Partners in Education: The Golden Knights change a school
George McGill, right, talks with the Golden Knights leadership team.

At Spradling Elementary, a mentor follows a model from his own life experience

Mentor George McGill will tell you he grew up in a very different way than students at Spradling Elementary do today. In his childhood, Fort Smith schools were segregated by race. Black and white students attended separate schools until 1966.

McGill advocated for the equal opportunity in education and civil rights that came to pass through federal legislation in the 1950s and 1960s. But he found much to value in the way he was raised, he reflects. His was a small, close community in which parents, educators and church leaders were well acquainted with the children within it. Adults cooperated to hold out extremely high expectations to young people.

In fact, he chuckled, a kid couldn’t get away with much of anything without being found out and quickly corrected by their elders – whether relatives, neighbors, educators or faith leaders.

His experience, as he now understands it, was a form of training. It always came from what he describes as “a position of kindness.”

In mentoring the Golden Knights, a leadership team at Spradling he co-founded and conducts with Baridi Nkokheli and Garland Bray, two other black businessmen, he draws on the training he received in his own upbringing.

When McGill volunteered in 2014 to assist Spradling principal Robyn Dawson, he said to her, “Give me 10,” Dawson recalled.

As this school year draws to a close, she attests that those three men, mentoring just 10 sixth-grade boys, have changed the entire school of 400 students.

The 10 Golden Knights were selected by school staff as students who had a noticeable influence on others. Honestly, that influence could be either positive or negative, Dawson said. What McGill and his fellow mentors told them was they had been identified as – and challenged to be – leaders. The mentors began to show the boys how to take the responsibility of leading in regular, hour-long meetings. The adults guide the students in an “old-school” fashion.

The Golden Knights were taught to conduct their meetings by parliamentary procedure. They elected a president and officers.

“They govern themselves,” their mentor said. “We want them to have input into what we do together.”

A black men’s leadership group called the Round Table, of which McGill is a member, sponsored Golden Knight-crested polo shirts the boys wear with obvious pride. They are tapped by their principal for responsible chores such as unlocking the school doors for visitors during parent/teacher conferences. They serve as officiants at the school’s Rise and Shine ceremonies. When help is needed from trustworthy students, Dawson calls over the intercom, “Golden Knights to the office, please.” She said they assemble as quickly as a team of superheroes.

Spradling Elementary benefits from 35 other mentors who work one-on-one with students, Dawson added. “There are many success stories there, as well.” All styles of mentoring have resulted in improved grades and an orderly atmosphere that gives teachers more time to teach, she said. “And the boys themselves have made life changes.”

McGill said his own childhood mentors convinced him and his classmates they had “everything within themselves” to succeed. Many of his classmates have had outstanding careers. He attained an MBA and was a successful insurance agency owner before his retirement and is in his second term in the Arkansas House of Representatives, elected to serve District 78.

McGill invited the Golden Knights to the state Capitol, where they met the governor. Using skills they had practiced with their mentors, they stepped up to shake his hand and told the governor about the Golden Knights. Through a competition, five of the boys earned McGill’s invitation to serve as pages for a day at the Arkansas Legislature.

Parents are always invited to accompany their sons on excursions to Little Rock and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

“Lots of fathers go with us,” McGill said. Some of the Knights have invited their mothers or older siblings, as well.

“It’s nothing new,” McGill said modestly of the effectiveness of their team’s mentoring. Just as others did for him, each of the mentors adopts that “position of kindness” in the way they encourage the boys.

“Early on, we get down on one knee, looking them square in the face, talking to them in a manner that is peaceful,” McGill explained. “They can see that big man in that suit is OK. Kindness is a tremendous asset. We want those kids to gravitate to us freely.”

Patience and teaching “in the moment” is the key, McGill believes. To teach young men to shake hands, the adults offer to shake hands first. Then they encourage their mentees to practice doing it, over and over. “Confidence is something you build,” he said.

He introduced the Golden Knights to older students from Northside High School’s Young Brothers Leading group and paired each one with a YBL member for their trip to the capital. The Golden Knights also were invited to visit the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, where they not only met Chancellor Paul Beran, they introduced themselves, shook his hand and invited him to become an honorary member.

Service to the community is one more expectation the mentors have shown the Golden Knights, taking them to work as volunteers in a local food bank. “No matter your own circumstances, you can always help someone else,” McGill told them.

McGill and his colleagues are creating a sense of the close community in which he was raised. The Knights now know older young men, respected educators and legislators are aware of them. Their world has grown past home and elementary, Dawson observed. “They’re talking about college.”

Dawson piles on praise and gratitude for the improvement all Spradling’s mentors have brought to their school. “We see better grades from the kids, more parental interest in what kids are doing and just a transformed atmosphere,” she said.

McGill and his team have decided to mentor another 10 Golden Knights next year and to continue to meet with their original 10 students, who will move up to Kimmons Junior High, to show the young men one more lesson: a long-term commitment.

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