Award-Winning MODELS Academy: Transforming the lives of African American men

March 13, 2024

MODELS Academy at Piedmont Technical College (PTC) has been chosen as this year’s recipient of the SC Technical College System’s highly esteemed A. Wade Martin Innovation Team of the Year Award. MODELS Director Steve Coleman accepted the award at the SC Technical Education Association’s annual conference on Feb. 16.

While their formative years ought to be fun and footloose, young African American males already feel the weight of stereotypes and biased expectations placed on them from all factions of society. It might not be obvious behind the playful joking and boundless, carefree energy they exude, but it exists nonetheless. Last summer, about 70 young men participated in the MODELS Academy Summer Institute, a two-week program designed to help them channel their exuberance into well-informed life choices and personal success through transformative experiences, inspired leadership, knowledge, and mentorship.

An acronym, MODELS stands for Men of Distinction becoming Elite Leaders and community Servants. Coleman, director of community outreach at PTC, oversees MODELS Academy, which works in area schools to increase the success rate of young African American males in grades 4-12.

When the program started in 2017, about 25 young men participated in the Greenwood-based program, which met every other Saturday. Since then, MODELS Academy has grown into a year-round presence serving more than 500 young men in 40 schools across seven counties. Coleman instills in his charges a sense of responsibility as well as respect for themselves and others.

“Our curriculum helps them understand that you must do your absolute best. We tell them the world doesn’t owe you anything other than opportunity,” he said. “You have got to take that opportunity and build on it. We want to be their ‘opportunity accomplices.’ We want to help them move forward.”

Rico Salliewhite, principal at Brewer Middle School in Greenwood, says his son is a graduate of the program. “There are lots of things our young men can get into in today’s society. MODELS Academy is helping build community,” he said. “My son thinks the world of Steve Coleman. Steve still calls and checks in on him. My son now is attending a four-year university and is doing very well.”

Coleman says he and MODELS mentors Courtney Smith and Chris Thomas are constantly seeking innovative ways to reach out to young men, both in person and using technology. Smith is a former law enforcement officer who teaches in the Criminal Justice Program at PTC. Thomas is director of the Dr. Benjamin E. Mays Historical Preservation Site in Greenwood.

Dr. Mays was a minister, educator, and longtime civil rights leader who advised the likes of Martin Luther King Jr. and multiple U.S. presidents. He served as president of Morehouse College in Atlanta for 27 years.

“Dr. Mays’ vision was to give young African American men a broader vision for themselves,” Thomas said. “We also want these young men to see something bigger for themselves.”

Many young African American men do not hold a positive association with law enforcement or the legal justice system. Smith hopes to dispel any associated negativity.

“We want these young men to see the positive side of law enforcement. We are human as well. We make mistakes, too,” Smith said. “We want them to see the profession firsthand through my own experiences, from stories that are real and not make-believe. They can learn how to avoid harmful situations.”

Dr. Alicia Williams, assistant principal at Bettis Academy in Edgefield County, finds MODELS Academy’s mission in perfect alignment with her institution’s purpose to inspire students to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) learning and prepare them to become tomorrow’s successful leaders.

“The MODELS mentors have been there. They are, themselves, Black men,” she said. “They understand what the struggle is. They have actually lived it, and they are the best ones to show young men coming in what to do, where to go, and what not to do.”

Yolanda Pendergrass’s son, Ahmad, is a former MODELS participant. She is very pleased with the support he received in the program.

“Some of the boys just need a little bit of extra guidance,” she explained. “You see the greatness in them. They just need a little extra push, a little extra support, and MODELS Academy provides that.”

Ahmad found that much of the knowledge he acquired during his time in MODELS was reinforced again and again in real life: “Some of the things that you learn at MODELS, you will see again later in life and think, wow. I learned that when I was just 12 or 13!”

As executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Lakelands, Sabrina Miller witnesses daily the lasting imprint of MODELS Academy. She watches the young men on her campus become empowered beyond their highest expectations.

“The academic impact that we have seen has been tremendous, but one of the greatest things to see is the increase in self-confidence these young men have in their abilities,” she said. “MODELS is a very different kind of program with a very specific purpose. It’s tremendous how focused it is, how intensive it is, … to see the time and attention that is poured into these young men.”

Every summer, MODELS Academy holds a gala event for the young men and their families to celebrate their achievements. It is more than a party or even a graduation. It serves as a singular tribute to the young men in the presence of their loved ones.

“With the gala, we create an experience outside the realm and the norm of their daily lives. We even teach them basic things like how to tie a tie,” Thomas explained. “It’s an opportunity for them to shine. They are the stars of the night.”

Coleman builds strong relationships with his charges over the course of the program. And he often, very sincerely, tells them he loves them. As a father himself, Coleman knows how important it is for young men to hear this, especially from a person outside the family. “We are not saying ‘I love you’ because we think nobody else does. We say it because we want them to know that somebody else cares about them at an elevated level and simply wants to see them be successful.”

Smith gets emotional thinking about the incalculable rewards of being a MODELS mentor.

“It will bring tears to your eyes to see a boy who literally had no hope, … to see them blossom into what they are today,” he said. “These are kids who never thought they would go to college, kids who are the first ones in their family to go to college, the first ones to get a degree. We see, and they see, that they can do it.”

For more information about MODELS Academy and to view a compelling program overview video, visit