As a young Marine in Vietnam, Moses Robinson said he fought an unseen enemy. Today, 27 years after he left Southeast Asia, he is confronting a different, but equally dangerous, foe.
Today the foe is the lack of self-esteem that prevents some African-American students fromreaching their potential; the battlefield is Robinson's classroom at Middle College High School.
According to Robinson, the danger for young African-American men today is a lack of positive role models and incentives to continue their education and improve their lives. The result: High numbers of young blacks are dropping out of school, and Robinson, a 52-year-old English and civics teacher, is determined to do something about it.
In an effort to combat what he sees as a waste of intelligence, Robinson will launch a program next month called the Interscholastic Alliance of African-American Males, or IAAM, modeled on Robinson's own successful mentoring efforts to keep several young men in school.
Robinson conceived the idea for the IAAM program last October after an 11th-grade student came to him crying because her brother had been killed in a gang-related shooting the night before.
"I thought: 'Enough of this--I have to go beyond the classroom,' " Robinson said.
The ultimate goal of the program, whose acronym is pronounced "I AM," is to curtail the high school dropout rate for African-American males.
Armed with a $50,000 grant from Southern California Edison, Robinson plans to work with school counselors from four high schools--Inglewood and Morningside, and Middle College and Washington in Los Angeles--to get referrals for 75 high-risk male students in the ninth through 12th grades.
"If we have 75 boys, I intend to save 75 from dropping out, enroll them in college and make successes for themselves, their family and their community," Robinson said.
His plan is to provide the students with role-model mentors from Southern California Edison and the business community. He also intends to hire tutors who will help the boys with their homework after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On weekends, Robinson said he will coordinate get-togethers to places like the African-American Museum in Exposition Park to show them how much their ancestors contributed to history.
"Then they'll know they were good at something else besides sports and rap singing," he said.
Southern California Edison selected the IAAM program for one of its educational support grants because it best fit the criteria by providing mentors, tutoring and job skills for high-risk students in their service territory, said Kathy Baxter, the utility's educational services consultant.
"Those kids will be our leaders and workers in the future," Baxter said.
Robinson said he is targeting male students for the program because studies show that African-American males have a higher dropout rate than females. The latest statistics from county educators show a 16.7% high school dropout rate for African-American males in Los Angeles County--the highest of any ethnic group.
"I was made aware of an unbelievable statistic: There are 329,000 African-American males in prison and 33% of the military is African-American," Robinson said, citing numbers from a publication by the National Assn. of Black School Teachers. "That means they're going into the military, going to jail or working at McDonalds."
Robinson blames the lack of positive role models for the high dropout rate.
Robinson speaks from his experience growing up on Chicago's tough South Side, and cites his own past as giving him an insight into the problems facing today's African-American youth.
When he was 12, Robinson said, his father abandoned the family. Within a year, his mother had left him in the care of an aunt.
And although he said he always did fairly well in school and was not involved in any Chicago street gangs, Robinson said he was forced to quit high school when his aunt could no longer support him. He enlisted at 17, married three years later and completed high school while he was in the Marines.
Robinson went on to spend 23 years in the Marines, serving two tours of duty in Vietnam.
"Out of a 16-man platoon, I'm one of four who returned," he said, reflecting on his experience. "It's an accident that I'm here. If I was standing where the other guys were, I might not be here now either."
Because he did return, Robinson said he feels an "obligation to make society better."
When he left active duty, Robinson joined the Department of Recreation and Parks as a lifeguard instructor at Green Meadow Swimming Pool in Los Angeles. In 1971, his wife, Margie, was killed in a car accident, leaving Robinson to care for their six children. His children now range in age from 22 to 33.