CINCINNATI -- Cedric Shields has noticed a big change in his son, Isaiah.
The 14-year-old high school freshman is taking more advanced classes and is more involved than ever before in activities at Northwest High School -- including show choir, marching band and the school play.
"He has realized he can be anything he wants to be," said Shields, a firefighter for the city of Cincinnati. "Sometimes he has 15-hour days."
It's a big change for Isaiah, who used to be content doing the minimum. And Shields says the change is due in large part to Hearts and Minds, a program started by a local teacher to encourage young, black boys like Isaiah to stay in school, study and work to become doctors.
"He sees that it's possible," Shields said of his son. "He goes and sees a black doctor and several black doctors at lunch. Now he wants to do the best and the most he can do."
That's exactly the point of Hearts and Minds.
Gary Favors, a special education teacher for Cincinnati Public Schools, started the program in 2012 after finishing a yearlong assignment at the Hamilton County Justice Center teaching juveniles who were locked up for serious crimes.
He had done research as part of getting his master's degree at Northern Kentucky University and found big disparities in high school graduation rates and other measures of achievement for black boys. At the same time, he learned that the medical profession needed more black doctors.
Favors decided to start Hearts and Minds to encourage black boys to stay out of trouble and aim higher -- and to introduce them to black doctors as role models of success.
The program is geared toward students in fifth grade through 10th grade, and about 10 students are involved this year.
'You can make good choices'
Hearts and Minds aims to begin working with boys when they're young and keep them involved in the program as they get older.
Barbara Coakley's great grandson, William, participates in Hearts and Minds, and Coakley said she sees the difference it has made in him.
"It definitely has a positive influence," she said. "To see that you can make good choices."
Favors has expanded the program to include spending time on local college campuses, too, so the boys involved can get a better feel for what college is like and what it takes to succeed there.
Northern Kentucky University professor David Childs said he volunteers his time with Hearts and Minds because the program's mission feels so personal.
"I spent some time in the inner city," said Childs, a professor of social studies education and history who is from Hamilton. "My hometown is very overrun with crime, hopelessness and despair. I just went to a funeral of one of my good friends. He was murdered."
Childs grew up in that environment with a lot of friends who were raised by their grandmothers. He knows how difficult that can be for black boys, he said.
"As a kid in the inner city, you want clothes, you want video games," he said.
And all too often, the neighborhood models of success are drug dealers, he said.
Childs said he was lucky to have mentors who pushed him toward college instead.
"A lot of times in the inner city, people are presented with the sports model of success. But it's one in a million to make it in the NBA," he said. "I came to find out that college was a lot easier route."
Childs said Hearts and Minds could help introduce that path to black boys the way his mentors introduced it to him.
It certainly has worked for Cedric Shields' son, Isaiah.
He has told his dad that he definitely wants to pursue a career in the medical field, possibly in technology.
"I think his favorite part was when we went to lunch with several of the black doctors," Shields said. "They treated us to a menu of shrimp, lobster and steaks, and talked to us like regular people."
It's a big contrast to Shields' own childhood, he said.
He was raised by a single mother who worked two jobs to support Shields and his older brother.
When Shields was ready to graduate from high school, he saw a sign encouraging young people to become Cincinnati police officers but ended up getting steered toward the fire department instead.
"I didn't know you didn't have to go to college to be a police officer," he said. "All those hurdles will be cleared away for him."
Not only that, but Hearts and Minds gives Isaiah a different kind of message about what it means to be a black man, Shields said.
Black men, in particular, are constantly hearing "you just may not be good enough," Shields said.
"With this program, he can see that being black is not a hurdle," he said. "It's 'I am good enough, and I can do it.'"
Based on the way Isaiah has rededicated himself to his school work and activities,
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.