FUTURE DOCTORS—Ninth grade students receive their medical jackets after finishing the program. (Photo by J.L. Martello)
by Renee P. Aldrich
Picture this, 48 African-American males between the ages of 12 to 15 gathered, not at a sporting event, not in a park, and not engaging in some negative activity. Instead they are in suits and ties, taking their turn at the podium to present information on scientific and/or medical projects they’ve been researching.
Their topics ranged from preserving ecosystems, to the HIV/AIDs epidemic in youth, to explaining the differences between tornadoes and hurricanes as well as showing how the skills used in mastering video games can be transferred to what one needs to perform brain surgery. Such an image is not a fantasy, or a figment of the imagination, but real life from UPMC’s Eye and Ear Clinic.
It was here were these boys participated in the graduation services as part of the “Journey to Medicine” mentorship program of the Gateway Medical Society.
This hands on approach to ushering young African-American males into possible health careers is part of the program mission—to educate and mentor minority pre-adolescent males in the art and science of medicine. It also hopes to inspire and guide them as they matriculate through secondary education and beyond. The three year program is part of the GMS’s Youth Program Initiatives and targets males because the numbers indicate the need is far more pressing than it is for females. According to GMS President, Dr. William Simmons, the numbers show that in Pittsburgh, the graduation rate for Black males is about 56 percent while that of their White counterparts is 88 percent.
The program, which commences at the end of February begins when the boys are about mid-way through the 6th grade.
“The reason for starting with 6th grade is because studies have shown that generally between kindergarten and 5th grade African-American students and White students do about the same; the gap begins to develop somewhere after fifth grade and progressively widens through to 12th,” Simmons said.
“As such we see beginning with 6th graders a smooth execution of the program goals which are 1,) To mentor and build a strong sense of confidence in our pre-adolescent participants; 2,) To stress the early importance of achievement in mathematics and science; and 3,) To introduce a broader view of all disciplines of medicine, and allied health professions, including but not limited to: nursing, occupational therapy, physical therapy, respiratory therapy, Physician Assistant, pharmacy, dentistry, and podiatry.”
Fourteen year old David Harris Jr. from Woodland Hills School District has been in the program from the beginning. He is currently a sophomore and gave a power point presentation on “Parasitic Mind Control in Insects.” David was in the first group of students which started the program, said his father, David Harris, Sr. ‘He was attending Sterrett Elementary School, and the math teacher suggested to the family that he may be a good candidate for this program. They were looking for students throughout the city schools with an interest in science who were outstanding in areas of academics, behavior, and overall in school performance. Young Harris aspires to become a cardiologist.
“I am able to stay on tract academically because of this program and because of my father’s influence on me, and I’m interested in cardiology because my mother died after having a heart transplant when I was in 6th grade,” he said.
Other parents on hand were Cecil Watkins of Forest Hills and Pittsburgh School Board member, Mark Brentley. Watkins’ two sons 14 year old Benjamin, whose presentation was “Quantum Spin—A New Way to Magnetis, and 13 year old Joseph, who presented on Scientific Methods to Preserve Collapsed Ecosystems, are both in their first year, Watkins said “having successful children is not about the neighborhood, but about the methods used in the home.
“We’ve had successes because of our (my wife and I) commitment to focusing on excellence and establishing a simple life in the household. For example, there is no cable or flat screen TV in our house. The entire family uses one computer, so no one is plugged into the computer 24/7.”
The son and nephew of school board member, Mark Brentley, 14 year old Langston Thurgood Brentley and 13 year old Rowman Ramsey, are both participants in the program. Langston, a 9th grader at Pittsburgh Obama, presented on the “Rise of Glaucoma” in America, and Rowman an 8th grader in Allegheny Traditional Academy presented on “All about Hurricanes.” Both aspire to be physicians, and say the most outstanding part of the program for them was the opportunity to work in simulated situations where you could take actual temperatures and blood pressures on lifelike mannequins.
Rowman who is interested in psychology said “I think if I become a psychologist I can understand what happens to a person’s mind that would make them do drastic things. I am excited about beginning again, I can say this program has done nothing but help me.”
Mark Brentley said ‘When my son and nephew got involved in the program I was amazed at the professionalism, the organized structure, and the time, effort and attention that these doctors give to the young men. I can only imagine the impact this could have within the school system if more young men could have this kind of exposure.”
The students not only get to present in front of their family and peers, but there are words given by Dr. Simmons, and awards are distributed for the best presentations. Also, participants shifts to the next level.
According to Dr Simmons, for each year of attrition, a new curriculum is created; each one different and each one progressively more challenging. Simmons also said the two major priorities for the staff and participating physicians, are first, really working hard with these boys to see that they have the academic accomplishment they will need to pursue these health fields, and two, is keeping them interested.
“Maintaining their interest level comes by getting involved in their lives, this means engaging them in other activities such as trips to the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, or to the Science Center on the North Side,” he said.
Many of the doctors actually mentor 3 or 4 students. The activities can be as simple as a movie, or a ball game, or just conversation. “This time is essential as there are many ‘social issues’ in their lives that must be overcome to insure the success of an individual student in such a comprehensive program,” he said.
The program whose lead funder is the Heinz Foundation, is also supported by Highmark and UPMC, and has three paid staff members. All the rest are physicians giving of their time talent and energy.
“But continued and increased funding will be what it takes to take the program to the next level” Simmons said. “By the time the inaugural group who entered the program in 6th grade get to 11 and 12th grade, because we add on about 20 boys per year, we will be up to 140 participants. It is keeping the stream of funding that will help us be able to optimize the program.”
Brentley said this program is so phenomenal that it is a mistake that the Pittsburgh School Board is not endorsing and fully supporting what GMS is doing with these boys.
“As a school District board member, I find it disappointment in the fact that I have been unable to convince neither Dr. (Linda) Lang nor my colleagues on the board to embrace and even partner with them in this program,” he said. “While I am happy, of course, that my son and my nephew are involved, in the long run it is not about that, it is about the 100’s who want and need what this program has to offer.”
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