R.J. Gatling was transitioning into the fifth grade at Baker-Butler Elementary School when his principal approached him about an opportunity in the M-Cubed program.
M-Cubed, which stands for “Math, Men and Mission,” is dedicated to helping middle school students from Charlottesville and Albemarle County achieve higher math class placements when they reach high school, according to the nonprofit group behind the summer program: 100 Black Men of Central Virginia.
“I always had an interest in math, but I always struggled in math, and then I was always the worst public speaker,” Gatling said. “I was too shy even to tell the teacher my name when I first came here.”
Through the program, Gatling learned the basics of what he’d later learn in his math classes the following year. His understanding of math and public speaking became better each year.
“I’d always be shaking, I’d be trembling in my voice, but I even gave speeches during the closing ceremonies here,” Gatling said. “I’ve given speeches at my church and other school events before, and that’s all in part thanks to the wonderful program that they have here.”
Gatling attended the program until he was no longer eligible. Though, he found a way to stay connected by becoming a teaching assistant.
“I really love the camp, and I was honestly sad I couldn’t do it again in ninth grade, so I wanted to come back and help in any way I really could,” Gatling said. “Just because they poured so much into me and I just wanted to give back in any way I could.”
It’s that sense of brotherhood that Daniel Fairley II, president of 100 Black Men of Central Virginia, said is just as critical to M-Cubed’s mission as the critical math skills it teaches students.
“We’re trying to prepare them as much as we can with creating an atmosphere like an incubator of brotherhood here,” Fairley said.
Gatling is now studying computer science at Hampton University, and said he met one of his best friends during his first year at the M-Cubed camp.
The start of the pathway to developing the summer program happened after a teacher workshop where two Black men were invited, an elementary school principal and a school board member, according to Bernard Hairston, founder of M-Cubed. The two men held conversations with students centered around their experiences of being a Black man in a classroom environment.
“I saw that as an opportunity, a crack in the door, and I said there’s a whole lot we can do,” Hairston said.
Hairston and others worked together to develop a Central Virginia chapter of the nonprofit, 100 Black Men of America, to begin work on the summer program.
After being approved and putting structures in place to start their local chapter, the chapter initiated two programs that year.
The first program was a high school scholars program. That program recognized Black students with a 3.0 grade point average from the nine Central Virginia high schools in grades nine through 12, according to Hairston. A celebration was held as part of the program, and in attendance was Rick Turner, former president of the NAACP Albemarle-Charlottesville chapter.
“He walked up to me and said, ‘Bernard, this is the best thing that I’ve experienced in Charlottesville, Virginia, in all my life, seeing this many Black young boys come together and present themselves in such a professional way,’” Hairston said. “He had tears coming into his eyes.”
The local chapter of 100 Black Men of America advocates for eliminating achievement gaps in Black students in grade school.
“We looked at the data, and the data was just horrible,” Hairston said.
The Virginia Department of Education released a statement in March 2023 saying Black and Hispanic students’ Standards of Learning test scores were 10% below the state average in their peer group, according to a divisionwide audit.
“A lot of the things that were noted in that audit report are things that we’re doing here, like teacher training for example, teaching to and through the background experiences of the students, and having strong relationships with families,” Hairston said. “Those are the things that our program has been founded on and grounded in.”
Following that celebration recognizing Black students, the second program was initiated: M-Cubed.
Students participating in M-Cubed are taught a rigorous algebra course that is intensive and tailored to the learning styles of Black boys, according to 100 Black Men of Central Virginia.
The day-to-day of the program includes courses in reading, writing and math, and of course breakfast and lunch.
M-Cubed also offers a mentoring program.
Hairston also created a program and certification model for teachers to tackle the battle of getting instructors to “teach to the culture and background of the students,” he said.
“In my role at the executive level of the Albemarle County Public School system, I created a culturally responsive teaching program and created a certification model where they had to be certified to understand how to teach across cultures, especially with Black children, and it works, but you still have people who struggle to make a shift from teaching the way they were taught,” Hairston said. “It’s hard.”
In the early stages of planning and assembling the Central Virginia chapter of the nonprofit group and the M-Cubed program, Hairston and others gathered 12 men from the community and asked what contributed to them being successful Black men, he said.
The common answer: a mentor.
“The follow-up with developing these young men is having committed men who are willing to work with them to reinforce the work that we do here over this two week time,” Hairston said.
Gatling met his mentor in the ninth grade, he said. Through his mentor he was able to build stronger bonds with students and develop leadership and public speaking skills.
“He would take me out to do things with other students that we had just to grow more bonds, because there were students in the group that I didn’t really have a connection with, he helped introduce me to them and he also signed me up for things to get me outside of my comfort zone, like more public speaking roles,” Gatling said.
The 100 Black Men of Central Virginia chapter was awarded the National Chapter of the Year for Mentoring in 2016 and the National Chapter of the Year for Leadership and Mentoring in 2014 by the international chapter.
Hairston said he has high hopes for the future of the summer program developed in partnership between Albemarle County Public Schools, Charlottesville and the 100 Black Men of Central Virginia in 2009, he said. It was “designed to provide African American males with a solid pathway for future success through increased opportunity for rigorous coursework and consistent opportunities for mentoring.”
“It has unlimited potential,” Hairston said “I mean because we have survived for 15 years.”