ST. LOUIS — As a teacher at Yeatman-Liddell Middle School's boys academy, Natalie Walker said she used to spend more time dealing with discipline than with teaching.
At any given time, more than half of the students in her homeroom of 28 were missing, mostly out serving suspensions. Books often found use as projectiles. Many classes in the school at 4265 Athlone Ave. experienced the same stories.
The average GPA on the year's first report cards for students there was a 0.7 on a 4.0 scale.
That's changed, and credit is going to a group of men brought into the classrooms last fall to mentor 100 male students through an initiative sponsored by the Mathews-Dickey Boys' and Girls' Club and the Human Development Corporation, a social service agency.
Principal Tracy Guillory said suspensions, which have been as high as two dozen, are down to a handful. Attendance is up nearly 10 percent.
As of the last report card marking, the average GPA at the academy was above a 2.5.
"It's just a tremendous turnaround," Walker said. "Their grades have gone from all F's to some B's and C's — even A's. We're so glad for the mentors.
"These children need all the help they can get."
Ruth A. Smith, president of the Human Development Corp., said she had wondered for some time if an intensive approach could help turn around some of the poor performance plaguing St. Louis public school students. She wanted to start at the worst-performing school in the city's poorest area.
Her research led to Yeatman-Liddell on the city's north side.
Martin Mathews, a founder of the Mathews-Dickey Boys' and Girls' Club, said he was approached with the idea of helping improve students' attendance, grades and behavior using mentors. He gathered a group of 14 men, charging them with helping the children using the Mathews-Dickey philosophy, emphasizing respect, restraint and responsibility in their daily lives.
Many of the students "don't have anybody at home," Mathews said. "Many of them want to do what's right, but it (what's right) is not there for them to know. These men are what we call a support system."
Guillory said he was surprised when the men showed up at the school one day in November, dressed in suits, asking how they could help. Local groups had offered before to come to the school and help, he said. They never showed. He worried whether the men were thinking long-term about their involvement.
Guillory told the mentors, "If you're not going to be here every day, don't come because they (the children) are going to be looking for you," he said.
To his delight, they were.
For the first period, mentors walk the aisles, stopping to help students who have fallen behind on the lesson. If a student is becoming disruptive, they may handle that, too. The mentors are also present for the last period.
Walker said the two mentors in her morning class help keep the students focused on the work. The students even seem excited about coming to school now.
Jamie "King James" Dennis, one of the mentors, said he knew it would take some time for the students to adjust to the new authority figures in the classrooms. On the first day, a teen voiced his dislike for Dennis with a profanity-laced tirade.
By the third week, Dennis said the boy was showing up to school more, listening to his teachers and participating in class discussions. Dennis, a local musician, said he and the boy bonded over a common love of music.
"It didn't take long to see the changes we were making," Dennis said. "It inspired me to continue."
The mentoring program hasn't been just about what's happening in the classroom. The students were surveyed to gauge their needs. One student who had been known to doze in class said he didn't have a bed at home.
Jay Washington Sr., one of the mentors, said the boy and three other people, including a toddler, were living out of bags in an unfurnished home.
A few weeks later, several mentors were unloading furniture, including beds and living room furniture, donated to the family through a pooling of various resources, Washington said.
Mentor Jason Williams, also the comptroller at Mathews-Dickey, said some of the boys' families have also received assistance with utility bills, groceries and clothing.
Smith, of the Human Development Corporation, said, "We're doing whatever we can to help them."
Eighth-graders Treyvon James and Lamonte Anderson said they like that the mentors work closely with them.
"He explains everything to us," Treyvon, 13, said about his mentor, Ray Williams. "He doesn't just tell us what to do."
And, the boys said Williams' approach will serve them well when they get to high school in the fall.
"Ray told me all I need from the teachers is the information they give," Treyvon said.
"We're just there to learn," Lamonte interjected, "and the teachers are just there to teach."
Guillory said having the mentors around has brought a sense of order to the school. The success of the program has even prompted talk about expanding it to more students, including girls, and even taking the idea citywide.
The mentors' success is just amazing, Guillory said. "These students are faced with situations I never would have imagined. I've learned that they all can be helped.
"There just weren't enough of us to help all of them."