AUSTIN, Texas -- Mr. Harris has a way of putting things.
That's what the young men say if you ask how he was able to get through to them when nobody else -- teachers, mothers, cops -- was able to. He has a way of breaking things down so you can understand.
For instance? "I tell them to stay in the ruts. What's the story behind stay in the ruts? My grandfather drove a wagon and one day he was going through a marshy field. And there was another guy behind him that had a wagon. This guy decided, that's too long. I'm going to take a short cut."
Moments later, that guy found himself bogged down and yelled for help. Harris' grandfather told him he should have stayed in the ruts. "You don't always have to cut new tracks," he said.
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"So what I tell these guys," says Harris, "is that we've cut ruts for them to have some of the opportunities and some of the things they can do. You don't have to make a short cut. If you'll just follow my tracks, you won't bog."
Wilton Harris is not trying to lead his guys across a muddy field. He's trying to lead them to adulthood across a minefield of drugs, crime, poverty and academic failure. Harris is the case manager for the XY-Zone at John H. Reagan High School. The program operates on 48 campuses in Central Texas under the auspices of Communities in Schools, a national dropout prevention program.
HIGH DROPOUT RATE
Reagan is a tough school in a state where one in three high school freshmen never graduates. I'm here as part of a yearlong series of columns seeking to discern What Works to improve the lives of black kids. The XY-Zone, according to its young participants, works.
Ronald Falkquay, 17, says that before the XY-Zone, his life was about drinking, smoking, skipping school, chasing girls and trouble. But now, he says, his grades are up, his attendance has improved and he hasn't been in a single fight this semester. It's an assessment echoed by other young men in the program and by an independent audit which found that 84 percent of participants improve their grades, attendance or behavior.
The XY-Zone offers services from tutoring to conflict mediation. The young men take field trips; they've spent a day training with the fire department, they've gone camping, they've met the chief justice of the state Supreme Court -- and volunteer for community service projects. Harris teaches his boys (the program is geared toward guys) fundamentals like how to write a résumé or shake hands with a potential employer.
The pillars of the program are what they call "working the five R's," which are: reaching out, relationships, role models, respect and responsibility.
"Not only being responsible for yourself," explains Harris, "but your community, your surroundings your family. Being a role model to your younger brothers and your sisters. Being respectful of not only yourself, but family, those around you, your instructors."
For all that, though, it seems obvious the young men at Reagan feel the XY-Zone's primary attraction is that in Harris they have an advocate who cares, who has expectations of them, and who has a way of making things plain. Such as when it was reported that lawmakers were preparing to add thousands of new beds to the state prison system.
He told one young man, "They're waiting for you. They're making a bed for you. ... The alternative is, you can bypass that state prison on your way to state college."
The message resonates. Asked if his new outlook causes him grief with his old friends, Falkquay says, "If you don't want to change your life -- and I do -- something wrong with that. I want to live a successful life. I want to be known ... as a good man. Not just no nobody, no unknown, one of them people you just shrug off and say, "Whatever." I want to be somebody kids and people can look up to."
So he's staying in the ruts.