Henley Middle School student Cole Roberts introduces facilitator Bernard Whitsett at an M-Cubed etiquette workshop

Thirty-five young men lining the tables of Bonefish Grill are wondering which fork to use for their salads. Now they’re standing up because a lady has excused herself from the table. Now they’re passing the salt and pepper, as instructed, to the right.

These are only a few of the lessons these 5th through 8th graders are learning from Bernard Whitsett, etiquette coach and member of 100 Black Men of Central Virginia, a non-profit mentoring organization in CharlottesvilleAlbemarle.

In partnership with Albemarle County Public Schools and State Farm Insurance, 100 Black Men identifies male students for M-Cubed, an algebra-readiness program that aims to increase the number of African-American males who complete Algebra I by the time they finish middle school.

M-Cubed stands for “math, men, and mission,” but while the program hopes to improve math achievement among young African-American males, it also addresses the overlap between social and academic skills.

“One of the goals of 100 Black Men in mentoring these young people is to provide exposure and opportunities for them to build their self-confidence,” Albemarle’s Executive Director of Community Engagement Bernard Hairston said. “We feel that providing opportunities that enrich young people’s experiences provides them with real world experiences and that closes the achievement gap that we see among many of our students.”

Hairston said that teaching and learning is about relevance, and that many young African-American students have difficulty relating to assignments created by middle- and upper-middle class teachers with whom they have little in common.

To address this, M-Cubed has taken the young men to see films, to visit college campuses, and to watch sporting events, among other activities.

“All of these new opportunities are a point of reference for the students to be more academically competitive in the classroom,” Hairston said. “Students walk away with a sense of confidence, and if they are given an assignment in school, now they have something that they can write about or talk about.”

And it’s working.

In 2008, the year before M-Cubed began, 80 points separated African-American males from white males on middle school math Standards of Learning exams. Within two years, African-American males’ scores jumped 24 points.

Additionally, M-Cubed participants are consistently out-performing their peers who are not enrolled in the program. Two out of three participants are enrolled in advanced and honors level math courses, whereas one out of four non-participants are enrolled in these courses.

What’s more is that the academic improvement holds over time. According to Measures of Academic Performance test scores, 90 percent of program participants show year-to-year growth, compared to 68 percent of their peers.

In addition to group outings, each student meets individually with his mentor. Wendell Green, a mentor and special education teacher at Albemarle High School, said building personal relationships with the students leads to academic growth.

“I think the personal relationship building is the initial phase to get to know the students, to learn what their likes and dislikes are,” Green said. “For teaching, for mentoring, that’s the key to getting them to open up to who we are as mentors, and for them to know that we’re genuine.”

Burley Middle School 7th grader Tyrese Wheaton said M-Cubed has helped him develop socially and academically.

“It helps you with your math skills to get you prepared for the next grade,” Wheaton said. “And it’s a mix. It’s mostly learning, but there’s also a social piece to it too, because everyone has a different personality.”

Jack Jouett Middle School 7th grader Marquan Jones said the program has made him a better person.

“It’s helped me grow to be a better listener, a better man,” Jones said. “And we’ve learned to set higher expectations than what stereotypes say about us.”

And that’s just what parents are hoping for.

Burley parent Kim Washington said she’d like to see the positive male role models help her son become more outgoing.

“I want to see him branch out,” Washington said. “The things that come out of his mouth and from his brain are so incredible, that I want everyone to see what I see at home, outward.”

Burley parent Andrew Parker agreed.

“For me it’s a social thing, for him not to be so closed in,” Parker said. “Because at some point in time you’re going to have to interact with all of these other people.”

Even principals can tell who the M-Cubed students are.

Gwedette Crummie, Principal of Crozet Elementary School, said the students are more motivated.

“They know that they’re in a program and everybody is invested in them, and they know that they can do,” Crummie said. “Knowing that someone acknowledges you and spends time with you and believes in you has got them taking a different approach when they come to school.”

Jim Asher, Principal of Burley Middle School, said the students’ attitudes have improved.

“They know that there are people supporting them, so they try as hard as they can,” Asher said.

As her son matures, Crozet Elementary parent Monica Brooks plans to raise her expectations too.

“They do go up, and as they do he’ll get better,” Brooks said. “That’s the only way he’s going to get better.”