Amherst-Pelham students of color get a role model who looks like them

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  • Gathered in his office to speak with the Gazetteabout the program are, from left, Brandon Stewart, Richard Sena, Tarakayn Shultz, The Saviour Robinson, Darius Cage and Orion Browne. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional Middle School Co-principal Joseph Smith leads a weekly lunchtime discussion group for young men of color. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Joseph Smith, Amherst Regional Middle School’s co-principal, welcomes seventh-grader Richard Sena to his office on Friday, March 8. Sena is among the students who meet regularly for a Friday lunchtime discussion group led by Smith. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional seventh-grader The Saviour Robinson is among the students that meet for a weekly lunchtime discussion group lead by A.R.M.S. Co-principal Joseph Smith. Photographed in Smith's office after lunch on Friday, March 8, 2019. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional seventh-grader Orion Browne is among the students that meet for a weekly lunchtime discussion group lead by A.R.M.S. Co-principal Joseph Smith. Photographed in Smith's office after lunch on Friday, March 8, 2019. Joining him are Tarakyn Shultz, left, and The Saviour Robinson. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional seventh-graders Tarakayn Shultz, center, and The Saviour Robinson are among the students that meet for a weekly lunchtime discussion group lead by A.R.M.S. Co-principal Joseph Smith. Photographed in Smith's office after lunch on Friday, March 8, 2019. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional seventh-grader Darius Cage is among the students that meet for a weekly lunchtime discussion group lead by A.R.M.S. Co-principal Joseph Smith. Photographed in Smith's office after lunch. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional seventh-grader Brandon Stewart is among the students that meet for a weekly lunchtime discussion group lead by A.R.M.S. Co-principal Joseph Smith. Photographed in Smith's office after lunch on Friday, March 8, 2019. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst Regional seventh-grader Richard Sena is among the students that meet for a weekly lunchtime discussion group lead by A.R.M.S. Co-principal Joseph Smith. Photographed in Smith's office after lunch on Friday, March 8, 2019. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Reporter
Published: 3/19/2019 9:49:29 PM

When Joseph Smith attended school in New York City, he only recalls one male teacher of color in his school of more than 5,000 students.

“Although I went to a predominately black school, there were no administrators or teachers that looked like me,” said Smith, who is now the co-interim principal of Amherst-Pelham Regional Middle School. “I just always said, ‘What a difference that would have made in my life just by mere fact of having someone who looks like me and I could look up to.’”

Now at Amherst-Pelham, he’s trying to give young male students of color what he missed. On Fridays at lunch, he leads a discussion group for young men of color in the school. There, they talk about race, masculinity and take the time to connect with each other.

“It makes you feel more accepted in a community,” seventh-grade student Brandon Stewart said.

 The students strongly agree that Smith is a role model, and that the group helps them get to know each other better.

In a school where the majority of teachers are white — nearly 75 percent of the school’s staff is white, according to data from the state Department of Education — Smith wants to ensure the young men of color interact with him.

“It’s important that they see someone who looks like them, understands them and comes from a similar background,” Smith said.

Research suggests that students of racial minorities do better in school when they have a teacher of the same race. Young black students are much less likely to drop out of high school if they have at least one black teacher in third, fourth or fifth grade, a 2015 study led by a professor at American University concluded.

Smith is also interested in how people acclimate to areas where they aren’t the majority. In his doctorate research at Northeastern University, for example, he’s looking at the experiences of black principals in predominantly white schools.

During the lunch group, Smith said, “We talk about the obvious things in the school — like academics, relationships with staff. How’s that going? I want to know that.” He added, “We talk about home life, we talk about masculinity in the era of Trump and this current administration.”

The group discusses how police treat black people and police brutality, seventh-grade students Stewart and Richard Sena said. Smith also took some students to a Black Lives Matter workshop for students in Holyoke.

Academics are another topic the group discusses.

Seventh-grader Orion Browne said sometimes there’s a stereotype that black people go to college for sports and nothing else. But the students said Smith encourages them to pursue academics too.

“One of the things I question is that when you look at AP programs and higher learning programs, the accelerated programs, we’re not represented in those programs,” Smith said. “It’s a national concern.”

Black and Latino students make up 37 percent of the student population in American high schools, but only 27 percent of those who are taking at least one advanced placement course, according to 2014 U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights data.

When the middle school group took a poll at lunch one day, all the students said they were encouraged by their parents, but far fewer said the same about their teachers,  Stewart said. Students in the group said they felt encouraged by Smith.

“He encouraged us to take harder classes, honors classes,” student Darius Cage said. “That even if we don’t feel (the) best at it, to give it a shot.”

Cage wrote an essay to nominate Smith for the 2019 Norma Jean Anderson Civil Rights and Academic Achievement Award, which he was awarded at the Amherst MLK Community Breakfast in January by the RaDAR Committee (Race and Discipline, Action, Rights).

The student nomination meant a lot to Smith, and he called it a “litmus test” for how well he was doing.

“It tells me students are paying attention,” he said. “Students had to cite evidence as to why I was worthy of that award.”

Cage said he felt he had to nominate Smith because he is so impactful.

“Seeing an African-American man in authority in school — that helps us,” he said.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.




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