Chess, handshakes and poetry build leaders at Lange Middle School

Sunday, October 10, 2010 | 3:13 p.m. CDT; updated 7:54 a.m. CDT, Monday, October 11, 2010
Seventh-grade students Roger White, left, and Julian Jensen maintain a garden they installed at Lange Middle School as part of the Lange Leadership Academy for Young Men. One of the founders of the program, Arnulfo Peat, right, says the program is designed to prepare students who may not be motivated yet for high school and college.

COLUMBIA — A firm handshake? The boy had no idea what his teacher was talking about. He had never had to give a firm handshake before. But by the end of two weeks, he had developed a skill to take with him into manhood.

He also learned how to tie a necktie, and he refined his chess skills. He learned about respect and responsibility. He learned to trust.

No excuses

“No excuses” became a key phrase for the students in Lange Leadership Academy for Young Men. If someone made an excuse in class, they led the rest of the group in reciting the following poem:

“Excuses are the tools of incompetence

That build monuments of nothingness,

And those that insist upon using them

Are seldom good at anything else.”

— Author unknown

Several versions of the poem exist, but the basic message remains the same: no excuses.

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Roger White, 12, learned to be a leader.

Roger and 13 other boys attended Lange Leadership Academy for Young Men, a two-week leadership course, as part of the summer school program at Lange Middle School. Although the class ended in August, the boys’ growth did not; they continue to develop their skills as the school year progresses.

Bernard Solomon, principal of Lange, and Arnulfo Peat, administrative support, created the program to help young men who were not using their strong potential. They asked teachers to recommend students, and each student went through an interview process.

“We are trying to make a positive difference in some young men’s lives,” Solomon said.

So far, they have.

“I have learned how to take responsibility for my actions and not blame others,” Roger said.

Julian Jensen, 13, said the program has helped him stay in school.

“It helps your grades, and it’ll help you be a smart kid,” Julian said.

As they entered the classroom, Peat required each student to give him a firm handshake. That was new to Julian, too, but he soon learned the difference between a firm grip and squeezing too hard.

Tying neckties also became easier with practice. 

"Once I learned how, it wasn't actually all that hard, but it was a challenge," Roger said.

The boys in the program developed trust for each other through team-building initiatives, such as a circle of trust. They gathered around a rope tied in a circle. Grasping the rope firmly, they leaned back. If they did not rely on each other and hold each other up, they fell.

“I fell right on my back,” Roger said. “But once we did it a couple times, I started to learn to trust my classmates more.”

In November, the students will take a trip to Alpine Tower, a high ropes course at MU, for a team-building experience.

One day, Peat gave the boys a communication challenge: the “Um game.” They had to have a conversation about an assigned unfamiliar topic for one minute without using “like,” “um” or other filler phrases.

“That was very hard,” Julian said.

“That was one of the best, one of the hardest challenges,” Roger said.

For Julian, helping the community is an important part of the program.

Between summer school and the regular school year, some of the young men landscaped the planter around the flagpole at the front of the school. Where weeds once dominated, neatly planted yellow and orange flowers now bloom.

“It was hot, but they stuck with it, and they came back for a second day,” Peat said.

As their leadership skills continue to grow, the young men will learn how to mentor younger students at a workshop later this year. In February, they will start mentoring the sixth-grade boys who will be in the summer 2011 program.

The boys also learned to improve their chess game, and Julian said they had regular tournaments. More important, they developed their strategic thinking skills.

“It helped us figure out strategies in life, or anything,” Roger said.

Although these boys will not graduate high school until 2016, they are starting to prepare for college. They and their families will attend a college readiness workshop at MU on Saturday. DeAngela Burns-Wallace, director of access initiatives in the division of enrollment management at MU, will facilitate the workshop.

Julian hopes to be a doctor or a nurse; he said he already has some knowledge of the profession because his mom is a nurse. He is also considering archaeology.

“Have you seen ‘Chasing Mummies’ on the History Channel?” Julian said. “I want to be that."

Roger aspires to play professional football. His fourth-grade teacher told him he should be a lawyer because he likes to debate so much, so he’s thinking about a career in law.

Solomon said the partnerships with students, parents and the MU create an important component of the program. He said: “It’s all connected to try and create a better likelihood that these guys will be successful.”


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