Seron Douglas dropped out of high school in the 11th grade when his son was born. He was living in the Bronx with his single mother.
“She was doing cleaning jobs; my father was not around,” he said.
The birth of his son, Seron Jr., would be a turning point for Douglas in what had been a dissolute youth spent mostly in the streets.
“I was hanging out, smoking marijuana, selling drugs,” he said. “Me, as a young kid growing up without a father or an older brother, when people on the street talk to you, you grow up with this mentality.”
Douglas, 23, found himself a single father after his son’s mother was hit by a stray bullet and died. “That right there was when I had to make the choice, I had to get off the streets,” Douglas said. “I was doing crazy things, but I had to stop and do things for my son. I had to take him.”
Unemployed, he needed help to care for the boy, who is 4. That came through the CUNY Fatherhood Academy, a unique program at LaGuardia Community College that Douglas heard about from a flyer posted in the building where he lived.
Through the free, four-month, three-day- a-week intensive program, black and Latino fathers, 18 to 24, can earn a GED, prepare for college and get a part-time job or internship. They also receive health and nutrition information and learn about money management, parenting and their rights and responsibilities as fathers.
Launched in November 2011, the academy resulted from a partnership including CUNY; LaGuardia’s Division of Adult and Continuing Education; NYC Dads — the Mayor’s Fatherhood Initiative; and New York City’s Young Men’s Initiative (YMI), a program that helps young black and Latino men achieve their educational, professional, parental and personal goals.
The academy is in the third and final year of a three-year grant from the Open Society Foundation’s Campaign for Black Male Achievement and the YMI to cover 200 participants.
The goal is to strengthen families by promoting responsible fatherhood and economic stability through education, employment and personal develop-ment.
“In New York, around 55 percent of African-American children under 17 are growing up without their dads,” noted Alan S. Farrell, citywide Fatherhood Services coordinator in the Mayor’s Office. “In the Latino community, it’s around 33 percent; for Caucasian families, about 26 percent. So everybody’s being hit by this. It’s impacting all communities, but it’s disproportionately impacting families of color: blacks and Latinos.”
Since the academy’s inception, 113 fathers have participated in three cohorts. Forty-one are in a current cohort. Some of the students are unemployed high school dropouts. Most have one child. Most do not live with their child or children’s mother, but some who are married do.
So far, 33 graduates who entered the program without a GED earned one; 39 got jobs; 24 are in internships, and 14 are enrolled at LaGuardia and other two-year colleges in the CUNY system.
“This program has exceeded all expectations that I had,” said Beth Lord, head of LaGuardia’s Division of Adult and Continuing Education and the academy’s director. “The men that come into it are amazing. Many have not had a dad, so for them to step up and say ‘I want to be a dad’ is simply amazing.”
Participants must read at seventh grade level and are initially put through a three-week boot camp to determine their commitment to the program. Anyone with more than three absences may be dismissed. Graduates receive a certificate of completion.
The academy helped Douglas — who also has a 5-month-old son, Zabriel, get full custody of his older son, food stamps, public assistance, child care and a job. It also gave him a new outlook on life.
“It helped me look at things differently,” he said. “I’m very thankful it exists. I wake up motivated, with more confidence. I feel much better about myself.”
Douglas graduated but is repeating a math segment required for his GED.
David Speal, the academy’s counselor and case manager, said that he “had never met a father here who doesn’t love his children. When they come through the door, they want to do something for them. They’re breaking a cycle.”
The idea for the academy was sparked by mothers participating in the Perfect Opportunity for Individual Skills and Educational Development (POISED) program funded by the City’s Human Resources Administration, according to Deborah Douglas, executive director for education and training opportunity programs at CUNY.
“For years, we heard POISED participants, all of whom are women receiving public assistance and are either pregnant or have a child under 3 years of age — express their appreciation for the program and ask why a similar program wasn’t available for the fathers of their children,” Douglas said. A concept paper she wrote for the academy was included in plans for the New York City Young Men’s Initiative which was being created at the time. Both POISED and the CUNY Father-hood Academy are centrally administered out of the Office of the Senior University Dean for Academic Affairs at CUNY.