By Madeleine Wright

WEST CHESTER, Pa. (CBS) — CBS3 is celebrating Black History Month. We are sharing stories about the unsung heroes who make the ordinary extraordinary.

That includes a West Chester University professor who launched a pilot program that provides support to Black male students who are struggling academically.

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Ondre Sheppard is majoring in criminal justice at West Chester University with dreams of going into cybersecurity. But two years ago, he almost dropped out of college.

“I had some deaths in the family, some family issues. I just wasn’t focused,” Sheppard said.

When his GPA dipped below 2.0, he got a call from health professor Dr. Tammy James, who convinced him to join Compass.

It’s a program that pairs Black male undergraduate students with Black male graduate student mentors who monitor their academic progress during weekly meetings.

“They literally spend a half-hour to an hour going over their classes, their assignments, looking at their planner,” James said.

And connecting them with resources like weekly tutoring and access to the study hall.

James created the program in response to a troubling trend.

“The data showed that we have an achievement gap on our campus between our male students of color, particularly our African American males, and the rest of the student population,” James said.

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She says at the time, the four-year graduation rate for Black males was only 13%. Since joining the program, Sheppard says his GPA has risen to 3.1.

“I was doing so much better academically, you know, because I had somebody in my corner,” Sheppard said.

Graduate student Sami Phelps gets free tuition and a stipend for mentoring Sheppard and other students in the program. He’s held Sheppard accountable with his goals, taught him organization skills, given him self-confidence, becoming more than just a mentor.

“For me, it’s a friendship, it’s a bond, and it’s something I can do to give back,” Phelps said.

So far the program has helped about 30 undergraduate students, and there are signs it’s turning the tide. The four-year graduation rate for Black males has risen to 19.8%. The four-year graduation rate overall is 52.6%.

“Making a difference, getting one student graduate helps us to kind of close the gap, little by little,” James said.

“I think she did an excellent job,” Sheppard said.

“Everything that Dr. James has done, she’s an amazing woman, she’s made so much impact in this community and there’s no one like her,” Phelps said.

Compass is in its second year as a pilot. James says next year the program will be permanent.

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James says she’s considering launching a program for Black female students because their graduation rate is now starting to fall behind that of Black male students.

Madeleine Wright