Throughout 2014 WBOI is digging deeper into the reasons behind the achievement gap between black males and their peers in Fort Wayne and meeting the people working to make a change. We’re calling our project “The Difference.”
In Fort Wayne, the number of potential roadblocks to academic and social development for some African-American boys is vast. Poverty, stereotyping, recidivism, cultural differences: each can have an impact on how a child learns and grows.
But one of the most significant factors contributing to the achievement gap between black boys and their peers may be what's missing in many Fort Wayne homes: fathers and strong male role models. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 66 percent of black households in Fort Wayne are headed by a single mother.
As a child, 21-year-old James Trimble fell into that category. But these days, he’s determined to prevent other boys from heading down the path he did.
Trimble grew up in Fort Wayne, and like a lot of children in his situation, he often got into trouble. But when he temporarily moved to Mississippi as a teen, it got worse. He says there was a lot of poverty.
"So it's either sell drugs or try to make it out with basketball or football,” Trimble says. So he started selling. He traveled between Mississippi and Indiana often, dealing in both states.
“I saw a lot of stuff, horrible," Trimble says, "like shootings, people dying, shooting up drugs. It was a horrible lifestyle, but at the same time, as I became deeper into it, it was more attractive to me.”
Trimble says a lot of his conduct had to do with anger from his dad not being around.
“I hated him, I felt like what did I do to you to make you want to leave the family and not be a part of my life," Trimble says. "I didn't deserve it. My love's in vain, that pushed me into the streets.”
Eventually he came to understand that absent fathers are part of a multigenerational chain of sons modeling what their fathers do.
“One thing my mom taught me was he didn't have his father, so he only could do what he knew,” Trimble says.
After his mom kicked him out of the house and his grandma died, he was drinking a lot, and knew he needed to make a change. He says his faith was a big part of why he turned things around, but he also realized he had to channel his feelings into something positive.
“That anger that I had," Trimble says, "I turned that into being better than who he was to me.”
Now Trimble can't wait for a son of his own, but in the meantime, he wants to be a positive male figure for all the young people he encounters. He interns for Youth for Christ, at the Primetime Community Center behind South Side High School – there he tries to make himself available to the kids whenever he can.
"A lot of these kids don't have anybody but their mom. We're looking at kids like 16, they're forced to be the man of the house,” Trimble says.
He also works with elementary school students as a substitute assistant for Fort Wayne Community Schools. Although he isn't there full time or consistently with the same group of kids, he sees a lot of himself in them, and tries to make the most of his time there.
“It makes me relate even more, how much I wanted help but didn't get it," Trimble says. "I understood how much I wanted to be mentored, but I didn't have that.”
He says a lot of young black boys face institutional challenges, and recalls one student he worked with.
"Not that he didn't know how to read, he was a great reader, but it's that the type of stuff they were reading didn't interest him," Trimble says. "I brought him some ESPN magazines, and he'd read those like it's nothing.”
This is a big deal. One study from the Achievement Gap Initiative from Harvard University suggests the differences between teaching and learning styles can lead to wide disparity in achievement and perpetuate stereotypes.
Trimble says not much has changed since his grade school days – there's still one big hurdle teachers have to face: being unable to relate.
“Let's say [as a child] you see a lot on the weekend, then coming in that Monday you start to not care about stuff of importance," Trimble says. "We know school is important. We know education is important. But you haven't been through what I been through and you're trying to tell me how to run my life."
The Harvard study agrees that cultural misunderstandings are a big root cause of ineffective communication that can also widen the achievement gap.
James Trimble wants to bridge that gulf. He has ambitions of teaching character development and working full-time with kids with behavioral problems.
For now he likes to stay involved with kids he works with. On a January afternoon, he attended a Washington Elementary basketball game to see 10-year-old Dionee White play.
Dionee was glad to see James, but not so happy with his team's performance during the game.
"They don't guard their people," he said. "I have to guard everybody."
Dionee has shown a lot of academic and behavioral improvement this year – he used to get in a lot of trouble.
"But not anymore," Dionee says. "I don't know, I changed my ways. There's no reason to be bad."
J.R Ankenbruck is Washington Elementary's principal and basketball coach. He says men like James can make a real difference.
“James has the possibility to have an impact on all of our kids," Ankenbruck said. "He has a great enthusiasm and passion. And that's something you can't teach.”
As for Dionee, Ankenbruck says a lot of people contributed to his turnaround. “I think James had a part of that, but so did his teacher, parents, and the school.”
But not all the young men in Fort Wayne are able, or have the support they need to get their lives on track while they're so young.
“I'm blessed to be one that made it out," Trimble says. "But there's also so many that don't make it out.”
For Trimble, that's his inspiration. He says he can't wait to be a father and break the cycle of single-mother homes in his family. He's already preparing for that time, and keeps a journal of advice to give to his son one day.
One entry reads, “January 9th. Visions and dreams mean nothing without someone who is ready to apply. So when you start one, don't look for any handouts, because you are the one who has to see it before other people do.”
Trimble hopes someday, by taking steps like this, he’ll be able to give his son the guidance he never had.
This is the final story in our week-long kickoff of WBOI's yearlong project, "The Difference."
You can help inform our coverage of black male achievement in Fort Wayne. Submit photos, stories, or news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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