Miami Northwestern Senior High is a school that is nationally known for producing some of the best football players and football teams in the country on a yearly basis. This year, the school has produced one of the best all-around scholars in the country in George Pickens. He is not only the top ranked academic student in the school, but he is also actively involved in extra-curricular leadership roles.
There is an old adage that says, “success leaves clues”. The tremendous academic success of George Pickens has left enough clues to formulate a playbook for others to follow. George’s playbook is special because he has been able to execute in an environment that places an extreme value on young Black males’ ability to perform on the football field, but not nearly as much in their ability to excel in other areas.
Listed below are seven college readiness plays that George has implemented and are potentially scalable for broader populations of students:
Students should set goals and review them on a daily basis
George said that the first thing that he does when he wakes up in the morning is look at his goals and a vision board that he has made. He looks at both his short-term goals and his long-term goals. This allows him to visualize what he wants to achieve and increases the belief in his ability bring it into fruition.
Guiding and even requiring students formulate and review their goals will increase their focus and help them to see how their daily coursework connects to their broader aspirations. Training students to begin their days by looking within and making investments in their internal development is sure to pay dividends in the form of building the mental and spiritual strength to help them to overcome adversity and to persist in spite of challenges.
The elevation of academic achievement is key
People generally do more and try harder in those areas where they are celebrated and valued. George recalled being celebrated at an end of year ceremony at his elementary school for being the top student in his grade. This encouragement helped to motivate him to continue to achieve at a high level.
The highlighting of academic excellence and the rewards of scholastic success should be put in the forefront with the same enthusiasm that achievement in sports is promoted. Kids growing up in Miami’s urban neighborhoods have seen young men go from their same schools and circumstances and achieve National Football League (NFL) fame, fortune, and stardom.
They have seen institutions like the University of Miami and University of Florida come into schools like Miami Northwestern Senior High School and see value in Black boys’ ability to play football. These young men are recruited, pursued, and offered full scholarships. The dream for them is real and it seems very attainable. They see and know many examples of it. The same can be done for other routes.
Academic competition can generate elite performance
George competed in math competitions and spelling bees through his involvement in the National Achievers Society since he was in the 6th grade. Group academic competitions like these were a key component to George’s success that may differ from a lot of the traditional experiences of the masses of students. The process of training for these competitions with other students allowed for George and others to have the opportunity to both challenge and encourage each other similar to the way that members of a basketball or football team do. Peers push each other to heights that they may not have gotten to if they just trained by themselves.
An aspiring basketball player can do all the drills in the world by himself but he or she will never reach their full potential until they sharpen their craft against competitors that force them to make adjustments and tap into their creativity to get past opposition. The same is true for elite level academic achievement. The Saturday academic practices and competitions were a key factor in George’s scholastic acceleration, and they can be for others if more opportunities, venues, and infrastructures are made available.
Competition and celebration should be built around gatekeeper skillsets like math and crucial courses like Algebra. There is rightfully a great emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (S.T.E.M.) careers, but S.T.E.M. will become STOP if students don’t have the proficiency to pass high level math classes.
Mechanisms that incentivize students to practice math like they practice basketball jump shots and football route running are needed. This play from the Pickens playbook is sure to pay off in the long run with more students being able to take advantage of opportunities in lucrative S.T.E.M. career fields.
Participation in sports can be a great developmental tool
George played football in elementary and middle school for the Miami Gardens Ravens and recalls having fun with his friends. He described football as something that he always loved and was able to connect with. He has been able to translate many of the lessons that he learned on the football field into the classroom like the importance of working hard and consistently practicing in order to produce winning results.
Though George enjoyed playing football, he never bought into the narrative that is dominant in the lives of so many young men that “football is their only way out.” He resisted that characterization and didn’t see himself as being one dimensional. He maintained a more holistic definition of himself and embraced other leadership roles in extracurricular activities like being the President of the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project Chapter at his school and the President of the South Florida National Achievers Society.
Dual Enrollment = Double Achievement
George began taking dual enrollment classes during the second semester of his freshman year with the goal of graduating with both a high school diploma and an Associate in Arts (AA) degree at the same time. He credits a member of his school’s staff for making him aware of the dual enrollment option. The awareness of the availability of this opportunity was crucial as many students miss out on opportunities like dual enrollment because they are not provided information about it in a timely manner.
George’s decision to take advantage of the dual enrollment opportunities that we were made available to him through his high school and Miami Dade College were key to building additional momentum to keep him going. This momentum helped him to maximize his days and maintain the grueling daily regimen that this double duty required. He would find periods during the day to do the necessary assignments and classwork. These time slots would be during breaks in classes, during lunch, commuting, and late at night when he got home from the Miami Dade College North Campus.
He was keenly aware that graduating with his high school diploma and AA degree simultaneously would give him a strong foundation and lay the groundwork for what he wanted to achieve in his life and the kind of impact that he wanted to make. This kind of awareness can build one’s focus and push them to maintain the kind of habits and regimen that George was able to implement.
Career exploration helps to generate a sense of purpose
George found a sense of purpose early in his life in seeing the issues that persisted in his community like gun violence and unequal access to healthcare. It motivated him to want to be a part of the solution by becoming a medical doctor and social advocate. He considers himself to be a service-oriented person and relishes opportunities to lend a helping hand.
The medical magnet program at Northwestern was a part of his attraction to the school. The program introduces students to various careers in the medical field as early as the 9th grade and they are also able to get industry certifications. Some of the teachers who teach the courses in the magnet program are also medical professionals, so they get instruction from those who are currently working in the field.
The importance of cultivating future healthcare professionals like George who value the treating of patients with care, compassion, and humanity is vital. The COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions around the family visitation of patients who are in the hospital has heightened the significance of how hospital personnel interact with patients. Hospital staff are now the only people in many cases that patients interact with and they are dependent on them for company, motivation, and care while they are dealing with their affliction.
Mentorship and examples to emulate are critical
One of the key infrastructures of opportunity that has benefitted George and thousands of others in Miami-Dade County is the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project, a dropout prevention and mentorship program founded by U.S. Congresswoman Frederica Wilson in 1993. The program has chapters of boys in 110 schools in the county who receive mentorship, life skills training, and exposure to a myriad of different experiences from health summits to prison visits to college tours to trips to Washington D.C. and more.
George joined the 5000 Role Models when was in the 5th grade and has been a part of chapters at his elementary, middle, and high school. He is currently the President of the 5000 Role Models chapter at Miami Northwestern Senior High School. One of the most impactful experiences for George was a trip to a local prison where he came face to face with the realities of the mass incarceration epidemic and where the consequences of a bad decision or even being at the wrong place at the wrong time could lead him.
George appreciates the way that being a 5000 Role Model has helped to shape his character. It embodies brotherhood for him and has exposed him to various issues and careers within his community that he may have otherwise overlooked. Though the program, he has been able to have numerous speaking opportunities including him introducing President Barack Obama at a Miami rally in October of 2020.
The brotherhood and positive peer pressure that is generated from programs like the 5000 Role Models has had an incalculable impact on the development of young men and should be institutionalized in school districts across the nation.
The development of life skills, character building, and quality decision making are key factors that George acquired from other sources in addition to the 5000 Role Models. The primary source was his family. His late mother was an educator, and his father is a professional in the engineering field. They both emphasized the importance of education and the doors that it could open for him. His older sister was a stellar scholar and set a great example for him to follow and emulate.
This kind of family set up may not be replicable for the broader population of students, but there are other resources and infrastructures like the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project that can be put in place to provide a consistent level of positive nurturing and support.
These seven plays from Pickens College Readiness Playbook can be adopted by other students and by systems and structures that are geared toward student development. It is important to note that this playbook does not guarantee success. It will not automatically give one the many intangible factors that George possesses and has consistently employed like grit, determination, focus, discipline, and the ability to delay gratification, but it can serve as a starting point for transformational change.
The playbook for athletic excellence has been instilled, replicated, and institutionalized in the hearts and minds of young men of color and the communities that they inhabit. Playbooks for academic excellence can be embedded in the same way. Success is not guaranteed, but the combination of the right plays and the will to execute them are a formidable force to contend with. It is time take a new look at what is working in our communities and schools and find innovative ways to scale them to broader populations of students so that they can be better prepared for access and success at higher education institutions.
Dr. Marcus Bright is a scholar and educational administrator.