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Children thrive in the classroom and on the field as Shadow Student Athletes

Today’s children are tomorrow’s leaders. One Pittsburgh organization is working to ensure this happens.

Shadow Student Athletes is a nonprofit whose mission is to have student-athletes transition their competitive nature into the classroom. SSA provides in-school mentoring programs, recreational sports and academic resources for Pittsburgh students.

DeVon Madden, 33, who founded SSA in 2010, was inspired to create the organization after learning about the alarming rates of school suspension in Pennsylvania public schools. Its initiative A.I.M. provides in-school mentoring during school hours.

“I wanted to create an organization that was consistent in everything,” said Mr. Madden, who grew up in Beltzhoover and played football at Brashear High School. “When I got to college I had success academically, but not in middle school and high school. I want [students] to have someone to look up to every day.”

A.I.M (Achieving Goals, Inspiring Change, Motivating Students) is fighting against ineffective suspensions. Between 2009-2012 African-American students received nearly half of all Pennsylvania out-of-school suspensions, despite making up only 13.6 percent of Pennsylvania students.

“We are trying to shape the schools through a process in giving kids more chances,” said Mr. Madden. “It’s to fight against suspensions since suspensions are not working.”

SSA currently works in two Pittsburgh public schools during the academic year and hopes to expand to other schools. Funding is provided by a service contract with the school district, grants and other sources.

Mr. Madden works at Langley Elementary School in Sheraden. Most of the SSA staff works in Martin Luther King Accelerated Academy (King K-8) on the North Side, where the percentage of economically disadvantaged students exceeds 90 percent in a building largely attended by African-American students.

“One thing we are working on is asking ‘How do we provide support?’” said Michael Dreger, King K-8 assistant principal. “We are working on becoming a community school — to provide food, clothing and medical services.”

Mr. Dreger noted that the school is often stretched so thin and is happy to have Shadow Student Athletes. Mentors known as character coaches help students channel their energy into productive efforts in the classroom. They are full-time faculty members at King K-8.

“We go to homes sometimes,” says Shauntae Myrick, 29, site director of SSA at King K-8. “The current group of administrators is also making home visits. A parent may not want to talk but if we come to see them at their homes, they know that we care.”

Ms. Myrick goes on to say how this is a progressive change from the school’s previous administration and appreciates how proactive the current administration is in their students’ lives.

Ms. Myrick, known as Coach Tae to her mentees, is also responsible for the founding of some of SSA’s programs, including the common room, re-focus room and Junior Mentor Program.

“The principal is big on trying to change the school environment. Some days it’s hard to see [progress] and other days it’s like ‘Wow there is change.’ ”

The common and re-focus rooms serve to help mediate conflicts students are having in the classroom. In these spaces, kids can reflect on their behavior with a step process and receive academic assistance. The spaces offer toys, books, snacks, electronics and resting areas.

“This is my favorite program,” said Ms. Myrick, when discussing the Junior Mentor Program. “We try to match [junior mentors] with kids that showed the same traits they had. The younger kids love this because they enjoy hanging out with the older kids.”

The junior mentors have been members of SSA since they were in the third and fourth grades, and their success in the classroom and improved behavior have allowed them to help others.

“We put these kids in leadership roles with jobs and responsibilities and it makes them feel wanted,” says Ms. Myrick. “They can identify themselves in helping kids.”

Keyoushia Shealey, 14, is an eighth-grader at King K-8. She was selected as a junior mentor this school year.

“Being a mentor has made me a better person,” said Keyoushia. “I have someone looking up to me, which makes me want to be a better person.”

Lord James, 23, is another character coach at King K-8 and was mentored by Mr. Madden while he was in high school. By graduation, Mr. James improved his high school GPA by 2.1 points and achieved high scores on the SAT.

“We came up the same way as these kids — same environment, same struggles,” said Mr. James. “I have a [high school] trophy for ‘Most Academically Improved’ due to the program.”

Andre Freeman, 29, was also mentored by Mr. Madden. Before he met Mr. Madden, he was training to be drafted to the NFL and eventually made it on the 2012 Steelers roster as a defensive back. He was cut after one season and Mr. Madden helped him become a teacher at King K-8 and coach for Evolve 2/10ths, SSA’s national champion flag football team. 

“My students sometimes ask me ‘How are you a teacher?’ and I say ‘because you can be one,’ ” said Mr. Freeman. “I wish the media can glorify what we can do. My kids don’t know that.”

Mr. Freeman is worried that the media is discouraging to African-American students.

“Our little boys and girls are falling behind because of music and media. They see flashy athletes and musicians. They see [reality TV show] ‘Love and Hip-Hop,’ but they see very few doctors and lawyers celebrated.”

As a football coach, he loves that he can return to his roots but says that the sport provides more than an outlet for kids.

“It’s not all about football. Sports can teach you a lot about life.”

Ahmad Arrington, 12, is a seventh-grader on Evolve 2/10ths. Being a student athlete allows him to channel his energies in an acceptable way.

“[Evolve] keeps me from fighting,” he said. “When I wasn’t in Shadow I used to fight and get bad grades. Now that I’m in it I don’t fight that much and my grades are better.”

“If the sun is outside you can see a shadow,” said Mr. Madden. “The mentor is like a light, and they follow the students. Every human being cast a shadow when there is light.”


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