An ACE in the Hole for South Shore School’s Young Men of Color

by Melia LaCour

Motivational speaker Les Brown once advised, to achieve your dreams “shoot for the moon because if you miss, you will land among the stars.” On August 3, 17 South Shore School students -all young men of color- launched their journey towards the moon by graduating from the Academy for Creating Excellence Summer Learning Program (ACE SLP). 

At an evening ceremony, graduates gathered with their families to celebrate four weeks of hard work, growth, and scholastic achievement. Armed with a stronger sense of self and the profound love and support of the program’s staff, the program sought to impart the students with the necessary tools to propel themselves towards their dreams.

Marcus Harden, the event’s M.C. and co-founder of the ACE SLP, began by sharing the program’s vision. “We wanted to do a summer program that was specifically focused on young men of color and wanted to target their greatness moving into the eighth grade. Often times, eighth grade is a loss year for many students, so we wanted to focus on the attributes of leadership, manhood development and the academic skills of math and science specifically, with reading and language arts tucked in.”

Funded by a grant from the City of Seattle’s Department of Education and Early Learning, this three-year summer program provides Black, Asian, Latino, Pacific Islander and Native American young men the opportunity to engage in interactive math and science education along with leadership development, individualized learning plans, social emotional support, health and wellness curriculum, and career exploration. 

Harden also shared the program’s historical roots. “Willie Seals, of the City of Kent, C.J. Dancer of the City of Seattle and myself, an administrator for Interagency Academy, came together out of frustration specifically around our young males of color not being challenged and not succeeding at levels we know their brilliance and greatness can provide for them.” As a solution, the team created ACE SLP.

“It’s awesome to see men of color promoting that education is cool,” said parent, Patti Oliver Bailey, of ACE SLP’s staff. The talented personal, Jo’el Allen, James Dixon, Jeremi D. Oliver, Shadeed Shabazz, Marcus Harden and Willie Seals III, are all Black men, deeply passionate and committed to developing a high-quality program leading young men to success.

Oliver praised the staff’s encouragement of her son. “They told my son, ‘this young man is an up and coming engineer.’ And my son said, ‘they made me feel smart.’”

While co-founder Dancer firmly agrees in the power of mentorship from an all Black male staff, he was quick to credit the students for their success in the program.  At the beginning, students scored an average of 42 percent on the math pre-test. “After only 20 days of participating in the program, math scores jumped by 28 percent and that’s with field trips and other activities included,” he shared.

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Academy for Creating Excellence Summer Learning Program students huddle at their graduations ceremony. [Photo: Leila Adams]
Students were further honored during the ceremony when staff called each student to the stage to publicly describe their gifts and talents, offer observations of profound improvement and express encouragement to launch them confidently into the next phase of their academic career.

“ACE really builds up your confidence in speaking in public and in making new friends,” said student, Devin Bethea.

Fellow graduate, Yusuf Adams agreed and added, “I was shown what it’s like to be a black boy and I feel like I got a lot of confidence.”  Josiah Seals, son of co-founder Willie Seals III, was a much younger participant and added that he enjoyed “learning the ways of an 8th grader and getting tools for the future and in life.”

These successful outcomes can also be attributed to the strong curriculum which blended rigorous classroom lessons with applied learning in the community. Daily lessons included basketball, followed by a morning huddle to set the tone for the day.  Students then attended Mr. Dixon’s math and science classes before heading to lunch. The afternoon was comprised of mentoring groups, leadership development, health and wellness, and a huddle with positive affirmations to close the day.

Students also had the rich opportunity to participate in several educational trips to expand their understanding of applied math and science.   “Our first visit was to Sound Transit,” said Seals. “The students were able to understand the business side and understand how light rail operates by making Magnetic Levitation cars.” 

During a visit to Amazon, students worked with engineers to learn how to code and to create their own websites. “We made websites for inventions like Zip Shoes and Lego Fidget Spinners,” said Adams. The company sent each student home with a free, Amazon Kindle Fire.

Additionally, students enjoyed trips to the “Living Computer Museum,” “Blue Origin” and even to the local lake to learn how to fish.

To support health and wellness, students visited Renton’s Reign Fitness to learn about exercise. “In communities of color there is a huge issue with health disparities and so we wanted to start early. Teach them, what does it mean to move your body?  You don’t have to be an athlete in order to do that,” Seals explained.

At the ceremony’s conclusion, Dancer extolled the students one final time. “I cannot truly express to you how much you’ve helped us grow, and how proud we are of each and every one of you. And here is the gift I want to give you going into the year: do not let this momentum and do not let who you’ve become and who you are get dimmed out when you return to the school environment.”

Although the second ACE SLP cohort will begin next summer, Oliver, also an educator at South Shore School, assures ongoing support for the graduating cohort.  “There is never a goodbye. We will create a foundation for them that can stay consistent.”

A foundation that will surely help them shoot for the moon.


Melia LaCour is an education columnist for the Emerald and the Executive Director of Equity in Education at Puget Sound Educational Service District (PSESD). The opinions expressed reflected in this article do not reflect the opinions of the PSESD. PSESD is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied in this article.

Featured image by Leila Adams

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