After-school program shoots for academic success

Greg Grant poses with a group of Bonner Scholars at the Hedgepeth-Williams School in Trenton. (Photo courtesy of Ashley Rodriguez)

He walks the halls of Hedgepeth-Williams School in Trenton as if he never left, welcoming each student with a smile and words of encouragement.

After working his way up to the National Basketball Association, Greg Grant has returned to the city he grew up in to make an impact off the court.

Six years ago, Grant started up the 94 ft., Inc. Academic Basketball Academy with the desire to give students the necessary tutoring to excel in the classroom. The program allows its members to participate in athletics, but only if they are willing to put the work in when it comes to school.

“The main goal is to give kids a different type of program, where you really focus a lot on academics,” Grant said. “It’s unfortunate that a lot of kids from the urban city think that sports are the only way out, but there are other ways of getting out, and they’re not really putting their focus on academics.”

In the early stages of his program, Grant was looking for a way to reach more children. He quickly learned that he could move his program forward by getting a helping hand from his past.

With the assistance of his friend and colleague, Bryan Caver, Grant was able to arrange a meeting with Pat Donohue, director of the Bonner Center for Civic and Community Engagement at the College.

Grant, who started for the College’s basketball team from 1986 to 1989, quickly convinced Donohue that the Bonner program would greatly benefit from partnering with the Academy. Things started off with only a handful of volunteers and students, but it has grown immensely in the last few years.

“When we started, he worked with 30 to 40 young men and women and we sent a team of five or six Bonner Scholars to his site,” Donohue said. “We’ve collaborated on grants and other projects and Greg now runs a full-fledged after-school program at his old middle school for 120 kids, and we have a team of 15 Bonners anchoring down each classroom.”

Those who have been assigned to assist Grant in his program have walked away impressed, especially Ashley Rodriguez, Bonner special projects coordinator.

“He has a passion and loyalty to the city of Trenton that is both impressive and admirable,” Rodriguez said. “I am a part of a program that has touched and continues to touch the lives of thousands of Trenton’s children. I am proud to work for a man and program that’s main motto states, ‘Teaching hope, changing lives.’”

As his program continues to grow, however, Grant has run into a few issues trying to spread his message. He has been met with hardship his entire life and has had to overcome several hurdles to prosper, including one last year concerning the head coaching position of Trenton Central High School’s basketball team.

The school board was preparing to name a teacher to the position over Grant, but there were people in the community who wanted to have a say in the matter, so the school held a meeting. According to Donohue, nearly 40 individuals, including parents and students, asked the board to reconsider their decision.

“Those players said (Grant) was the only one who told them they could go to college, that they could overcome the streets,” Donohue said. “He told them he loved them and would provide tutors and mentors for them all year round. It was Trenton’s version of a ‘Hoosiers’ movie town-hall meeting. He got the job, and one year later, eight of those players made honor roll. It is a great story. He is a great story.”

After becoming head coach, Grant began the process of introducing his Academy to Trenton Central High.

“We have worked with the administration and now have a team of 10 (Bonner Scholars) at TCHS, and they are also bringing large numbers of students (from the College) as volunteers or participants in class-based community engaged learning projects,” Donohue said.

Grant’s program is a unique one in the sense that he can easily relate to his kids, having gone through the same public school system.

“I’m not just an outsider coming in and giving them this magic cure to success,” Grant said. “Being able to say I sat in the same classrooms and walked the same hallways and walked the same streets, that makes them realize, makes them believe that I’m one of them and that there is no secret to it but hard work and commitment.”

Although he knows that there is a lot of work to be done, Grant believes that if he keeps his program going, mentalities can be changed.

“It’s no secret that Trenton test scores are behind,” Grant said. “They’re two to three grade levels behind in some areas, and our goal is really to get the kids back up to standard with what the state requires. That way we can give them hope that they can become whatever they want to become.”

It’s that type of mentality that has won over the Trenton community and the support of the Bonner program.

“We should be proud of (Grant), not only because of what he gave the College on the basketball court, but for what he is still doing today,” Donohue said. “He is a true partner who creates meaningful community engaged learning experiences for our students while trying to create opportunities for others in his hometown, and hopefully, along the way, he’ll send us more Greg Grants.”