EAST CHICAGO — Former city school teacher Dee Etta Wright took on a weighty task when she became principal at Block Middle School in the School City of East Chicago a couple of years ago.
She now has taken on an even more challenging task as she works to empower the young men at her school.
Wright, who oversees a school of seventh- and eighth-grade students, has 307 girls and 293 boys in her building.
In late December, Wright reached out to fellow administrators, community leaders, parents and local politicians to come speak to the young men in her building, to empower and encourage them at a special luncheon program.
Wright has been working hard to reduce the behavioral issues and school fights in her building, she said.
"I want (male students) to hear from community leaders. I want them to hear these issues from a man's point of view. I want them to have a better self-image and through that, have confidence in the way they feel about themselves," she said. "If they feel better about themselves, they'll behave better and they will perform better academically, and become positive leaders at school."
Wright knows the statistics.
According to the Indiana Youth Institute, in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties, there are 90,982 boys ages 0 to 17 and 21,918 boys ages 14 to 17. In 2016, the graduation rate for males in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties was 87.6 percent, compared to 92.7 percent for females.
There are 1,151 males ages 16 to 19 who are not enrolled in school and have not graduated from school in the three counties. In 2016, 65 boys were committed to the Department of Correction in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties.
For the same year, 45 boys were committed to the Department of Correction in Lake County; in LaPorte County, four boys; and in Porter County, 16 boys.
School violence can affect students' educational achievement, contribute to an unhealthy school environment and perpetuate violent behavior, according to the institute. Students who witness violence and are fearful at school may feel the need to protect themselves through actions that can increase the likelihood of violence, such as carrying weapons at school.
Leaders try to inspire
Some of the local leaders who attended Wright's luncheon included Gary state Rep. Vernon Smith, coach Tony Branch, teacher Darnell Scott, East Chicago Sen. Lonnie Randolph, the Rev. T. Brian Hill, pastor at New Ebenezer Baptist Church, now in Merrillville, and East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland.
Copeland talked about his dreams and ambitions as a youngster. He told students and their parents that he put together a strategy to reach his dreams. "I followed that plan throughout my life, and it started by doing well in school," he said.
Hill told students he came from a home where his father wasn't around much. He said he failed twice before fifth grade, and eventually met a teacher who took time and worked with him to bring his reading and math levels up.
"That teacher stepped into my life and made a difference," Hill said. "We want to do the same for you. We want to be involved in your life. You can call on us."
East Chicago businessman Kelvin Bride, now 33, said he graduated from E.C. Central in 2003. He said he now has a graphics business that makes T-shirts, banners and flyers and is a youth minister.
"I had Mrs. Wright as a teacher when I was a senior," Bride said. "She was a great teacher. She was approachable. She was one of the favorites of all the students. I came back here to help build up these young men, and encourage them to go forward no matter what they are going through."
Male students, their fathers, respond
The event, where students were able to invite their fathers, seemed to have a positive effect on both.
Carlos Rojes sat with his eighth-grade son, Christian.
"I think this is a really good idea," Rojes said. "I grew up in the inner-city so I know about all the problems kids face with gangs and the things that kids can get into. This shows kids a different way. I talk to my son all the time. Young girls also need strong role models. It's a tough world out there."
Christian Rojes, who wants to become an engineer, said he thinks it's good the middle school hosted a program to show young men how to become better people. "There's still some fighting at school, but it's not like it used to be," he said. "They need to hold something for girls."
Block eighth-grader Jayden Brown, who sat with his father, Randall Dodson, said he thinks this type of program will help students better behave.
Another student, seventh-grader Kylion Gray, said the program gave students a chance to hear motivating speeches and spend time with their fathers. Gray was attending with his dad, Charles Hunt.