Grade A! program creator builds leadership in Columbia's youth

Friday, October 19, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:56 a.m. CDT, Saturday, October 20, 2012
The after-school program, GradeA!, provides enrichment activities and works to instill leadership in Columbia youth. The program runs during the fall and spring for students from kindergarten to college.

 COLUMBIA — As a child, the Rev. Janice Threat received an apple and a carton of milk every day from an after-school program in Chicago. When she got older, she earned $1 a day helping around the center.

Threat is program adviser for an after-school program called Grade A! at the Second Missionary Baptist Church in downtown Columbia. It not only feeds the children, it gives weekly enrichment activities and gives lessons on leadership to the next generation. 

Grade A! is a free mentoring and tutoring program that pays attention to the academic achievement and personal development of youth, especially among those who are minority or at-risk.

The program runs during the fall and spring public school semesters. On Tuesdays, it operates as a tutoring program, and on Thursdays, it becomes a mentorship program, Threat said. This year, the program extended enrollment to students from kindergarten through college level. 

The 19 enrolled students are paired with mentors from MU who tutor them and join them in enrichment activities.

Thursday's mentoring component is designed to build leadership "from the exterior to interior," Threat said. Topics include cultural identity, career goals and self-esteem. 

Grade A! addresses student success

During a recent session, students were asked to decide what their personal logo would be. Hickman High School senior Cara Leena Jones said her logo would be a rose growing from concrete, illustrating how the positive can grow out of the negative.

Cara Leena, 17, said she experienced a shift in attitude over the two years she has attended the program.

"I procrastinated a lot," she said. "I didn't want to do my work. To a point, I was very rude and blunt. As of now, I've kind of developed into an organized, much nicer type of person."

She said she also learned how to be a better mentor to younger students at Hickman High School.

"It gives you insight into how other people are," she said. "Look at my life: Two years prior, the reason I was rude was because I'd just lost my mom."

Threat estimates that more than 100 students have participated since the program began in 1999.

Hickman principal was once a tutor

Hickman High School's assistant principal, Eric Johnson, 27, is a former Grade A! tutor. He said he decided to study education and work in the field after spending time with the program.

"It was really an unofficial practicum almost," he said. "It gave me the opportunity to learn how to build relationships with kids."

Johnson said Threat's leadership has had an effect on others, as well.

"Just being around her pulled the God out of everybody else." 

Threat said she was inspired to establish the program after considering the accomplishments of black women before her. 

"I'm aware of African-American women's history," she said. "There are a lot of phenomenal women who have started their own programs."

Threat received her doctorate in education from Iowa State University and moved to Columbia in 1995 to teach.

In 1999, she started a tutoring program for children from home. She moved the program to churches throughout Columbia, and others soon noticed its progress.

After people recognized that it "had such a tremendous impact," she was asked to direct the after-school program at Parkade Baptist Church. 

In 2001, she received a grant through Stephens College to operate it as a work-study job for students. The grant expired in 2003.

Fraternity jumped in to help

Nine years ago, Threat made an announcement at Second Missionary Baptist about the  program, and an Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity member took note. He and his fraternity brothers, along with other MU students, became involved with Grade A! as tutors and mentors.

The program changed its location once more in 2005 when it moved to the education annex at Second Missionary Baptist.

Through Grade A!, Cara Leena said she has a better vision of her ideal career path. The condition of low-income neighborhoods has motivated her to pursue a major in business management and marketing in the hopes of eventually creating jobs in those neighborhoods.

She credits Threat's focus on leadership as a big reason for the program's success.

"Reverend Threat is a very headstrong but determined woman," she said. "She is great with kids and shaped the lives of so many people over the years. She knows how to tell it like it is but get you into a place where you can achieve." 

Grade A!, a nonprofit organization, doesn't advertise and isn't affiliated with a national organization, which might dampen its enrollment, Threat suggested.

Initial misgivings are usually overcome

Initially, some students are reluctant about attending, but Threat said they often experience a change of heart.

"Once these kids get involved, they fall in love with it," she said. "It's teaching the kids that it's OK to be studious." 

Some students must learn certain acceptable behaviors at the center. Threat said she taught one student to hang up his coat instead of throwing it on the floor when he entered the building.

Additional benefits for the students include attending campus events, learning about and eating nutritious meals and performing community service.

Having an influential minority student serve as a mentor is an important aspect to Grade A!'s structure. 

Role models can help students achieve

Threat pointed to studies that indicate women are less likely to enter the science field because they have fewer role models.

"It's the same thing with minority students," she said. "It's not easy to tell someone, 'Yes, you can succeed,' when you don't see examples."

The one-on-one relationships keep students coming back, she said.

"They listen to me," Threat said. "They get talked at at school. Here, they get talked to."

Under Threat's advisory, seven MU students are also members of Grade A!'s leadership team, a community training experience. They learn how to build and maintain relationships with the students and their families, and they helped to select the 15 to 20 other MU students who are currently serving as tutors.

"The mentors are like little Reverend Threats in training," Cara Leena said.

Leadership team members inform parents about a child's progress and encourage them to communicate with the school.

"It takes a village to raise a child," Threat said. "That's the underlying philosophy."

MU senior Falon Lawson, 21, is co-director of the program. Threat is Lawson's first mentor since coming to college.

"She showed me a lot of things I had no idea about," Lawson said. "Because of her, I know what my passion is.

"She also showed me I'm good at administration. If it weren't for her, it'd be my senior year, and I wouldn't know what I'd want to do with my degree."

Guidance during adolescence is critical

Lawson said it's especially important to provide guidance to youth during the awkward stages of adolescence. She wants the students to know they're not the "stereotypical black woman or the stereotypical black male."

Threat emphasized that her role is to provide history and teach leadership to younger generations.

"I'm married to the community," she said.

The Grade A! program will end its fall session on Nov. 29. 

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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