David Lauderdale

Mentor looks beneath the surface to find students' hidden potential for success

  • Jonathan Peck is a 76-year-old white guy who mentors a black Beaufort High School student.
  • "He has a problem with bad marks," Peck said. "I know darn well he's smart. But too often we don't look under the rock to find out if the guy there is another Bill Gates."

    Peck does not claim to have the answer to a problem vexing the Beaufort County Board of Education. The board recently was told that only 52 percent of its black male students pass the state high school exit exam on the first attempt. That's significantly lower than black females, Hispanics and whites.

    But Peck has done this: He has looked under a lot of rocks.

    For a number of years, he has mentored local students, helped them find scholarships, given countless lectures and even written a book with college basketball coach Mike Jarvis called "Skills for Life: The Fundamentals You Need to Succeed."

    For 45 years, he was a Boston entrepreneur in the human services field -- doing things like running a pre-trial intervention program for first-time offenders. Peck has spent a lifetime around young people coming into adulthood. Many of them have been black males.

    "The bad news is that there are a lot of family breakdowns," he said. "Role-modeling to that population is very difficult."

    After Jon and Marilyn Peck moved to Dataw Island near Beaufort eight years ago, he found even more challenges. In a city, a kid who wants to get ahead can get on a subway or bus to a better job. Here, transportation is a problem. And he said the smaller community offers a smaller pool of successful black professional men for teens to emulate.

    But that hasn't stopped Peck from trying to make a difference.

    "Education to some extent is everyone's responsibility," he said.

    That includes what he calls "life's invisible education" -- the passage of conventional wisdom from generation to generation. It, too, has fundamentals: How one should look, act, communicate, set values, set goals, think ahead and serve others.

    While Peck was teaching graduate courses at Boston University, the basketball coach came to him. Jarvis said his players could meet his demands and stay in school, but they were clueless about life. The coach and the entrepreneur got on the case. They are of different races but similar backgrounds. Both have spent a lot of time with young black males. Both were reared in single-family homes without much money. In 2003, they published their book.

    "It's common-sense things," Peck said. "Things I taught my kids."

    Firm handshakes, eye contact, punctuality, time-management -- things everyone needs to learn.

    Peck developed a relationship with Beaufort High football coach Mark Clifford. Peck mentors some players and regularly speaks to the full team on the broad topics of "who you are," "how you look," "how you perform" and "where do you go from here."

    His wife is involved, and now, so is their neighborhood. They organized a trip for 50 Dataw Island residents to a Beaufort High Eagles football game. They saw integrated stands, community support, good kids and positive attitudes. They were welcomed by the principal and athletics director. Images in their minds were replaced with reality. Everyone loved it.

    On Feb. 10, Dataw Island will host the Beaufort High School football banquet for the second time. Peck recruited about 30 men to act as greeters at the Dataw Clubhouse Carolina Ballroom, meeting the players and their parents and talking to them.

    "It puts segments of our population together that do not normally mix," Peck said. "It opens our horizons. That's a two-way street. We have images of each other, but rarely do we really see each other face-on. There's been a lack of communication."

    School board chairman Fred Washington Jr. said Peck illustrates the public involvement within existing systems that can help schools succeed.

    "We need more people like that," Washington said.

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