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Black seniors take on a new role: mentors

Several dozen freshmen amble into the high school conference room. Most wear baggy jeans and oversized T-shirts. A few have attitudes and hairstyles to match. All have struggled in school.

Just as they pass through the door, some well-groomed seniors dressed in white, collared shirts and ties grab the underclassmen, clasp their hands and greet them.

Defying the age-old tradition of older students putting younger ones in their place, a group of two dozen students at Jones High School are trying to succeed where the state and most school districts have failed _ in overcoming generations of underachievement among African-American males.

"My goal for you ninth-graders is for you all to take another step up and understand that education is serious," senior Willy Joseph tells the group.

"My second goal is for us to come together as one."

Joseph is chairman of Florida's first Minority Achievement Committee. Modeled after a program at Shaker Heights High School near Cleveland, the group assigns academically strong seniors to mentor struggling freshmen.

Like many states, Florida has yet to conjure a formula to help black students succeed. Less than a third of the state's black schoolchildren can read at grade level on state tests. By comparison, about two-thirds of white students and almost half of Hispanic students pass state reading tests.

At Jones High, the situation is worse. With only 5 percent of freshmen reading as they should, principal Lorenzo Phillips says he is serious enough about the idea to let students miss an hour of class for the first meeting.

For weeks leading up to Jones High's inaugural MAC meeting, the seniors planned.

Faculty adviser Valerie Williams helped them select freshmen to be mentored, but it's the students who run the show.

Senior Andy Charles beamed as he rested an arm on freshman Brandon Toliver's shoulder.

"He's from the neighborhood. I've been knowing him since he was young," Charles said. "I know what he's been through and he knows what I've been through, so it makes sense to put us together."

Freshman Alvin Williams said he sees some potential. He said he was impressed that upperclassmen would even care.

"They are taking time out to help the kids who need help," he said.