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Alumni reaching back to help
students at former school
Assisting with tutoring, mentoring, keeping history alive

By Lindsay Moore
The Commercial Appeal
Monday, May 19, 2008

Mattie Brown Guy never attended the new, modern Manassas High School.

But she walks the halls as if it were her own.

Students in the cafeteria shout greetings and make room for her at a table.

Guy, class of '54, is a fixture among the alumni who are at Manassas every Tuesday. She never misses a program or sporting event, and students say she doesn't sugarcoat the truth.

High school administrators say they need more like her.

With schools feeling pressured from the outside and the inside, alumni can be a valuable resource, administrators say, providing financial assistance, tutoring and mentoring, while also helping to instill a sense of history, school spirit and pride in today's students.

"If we don't help them, who will help them?" asks Guy, surrounded in the Alumni Room at Manassas by decades-old memorabilia.

It was the alumni who bolstered the students after a shooting there last October.

"They let it be known it was an accident and our school is not bad," said DeMarcus Douglas, 17, who graduated on Saturday. "They stood behind us."

East High model

Many see the Greater East High Foundation as a model of how alumni can help.

The foundation, which has received national recognition, was created by Charles McVean, class of '61. Among it's many functions, the foundation pays students to tutor others after school.

"We have identified the most underutilized resource in our city today, the top performing students at these inner city high schools," said McVean, chairman and CEO of McVean Trading and Investments.

Known at East as "Charlie Mustang," a nod to the school's mascot, McVean has funded lunch for 200 during parents' meetings and routinely supplies outside speakers to inspire the students. Recently, visitors from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange exposed students to a new world of possibilities.

East principal Fred Curry is the first to credit McVean's involvement at East for bolstering test scores and school pride.

"He has the right idea in terms of trying to get pride back in school and in terms of getting alumni back in these schools and to assist schools," Curry said.

McVean's idea is also being used at Whitehaven High School, where Dr. Jerre Freeman sponsors the Greater Whitehaven High Foundation.

Dr. Vincent Hunter, principal and member of the class of '82, has proof the program works.

"Our scores went from 68 percent to 85 percent proficiency in one year."

Some hard to reach

As accepting as some students are of the alumni, in many schools there is a large part of the student body -- teens dealing with bad grades, crime-ridden neighborhoods, uninvolved parents or gang recruitment -- who past graduates don't reach.

"What we have to do is figure out a way to turn these kinds around who are headed in the wrong direction," says McVean.

He's planning a tutoring program for the students who are not college-bound.

The Greater East foundation plans to train 50 tutors at the University of Memphis this summer. If Memphis City Schools gives its approval, the foundation will pay them to work with students.

While intervention might work, others say programs need to bring in some younger alumni to make an impact on students who are harder to reach.

At Manassas, most active former students graduated in the '40s, '50s and early '60s, said Nadie Kinnard, president of the Manassas Alumni Association.

She said the students "think we think everything they do is wrong," said Kinnard, class of '65. "They need somebody that understands their language, why they do what they do."

Manassas alumni have raised money and maintained a college scholarship program but have been unable to establish a formalized mentor program, Kinnard said. Money always helps, but it's not the only answer.

"You've got to have some people power," Kinnard said. "Younger people can relate to these students better than I can."

-- Linda A. Moore: 529-2702

School Volunteers

Adult volunteers at Memphis City Schools must submit to a background check and meet other criteria.

To learn more, call 416-7600 or go online to mcsk12.net and click on Volunteer Services at the bottom of the site index list to the right of the page.