Tuskegee Airmen Tuskeegee 1

Thurgood Marshall Center principal Phil Ambrose is receiving an award from the USA Network for his leadership of the school's project about the history of the Tuskeegee Airmen. Thursday December 6, 2012. (Larry Fisher/QUAD-CITY TIMES)

Larry Fisher

Thurgood Marshall Learning Center principal Phillip Ambrose says it was just a scheduling quirk that resulted in him receiving an award for his leadership of a school project about the Tuskegee Airmen in a ceremony today — the 71st anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that launched America’s entry into World War II.

But he will tell you the planning and work from staff, students and community partners that made the project a success was no quirk. It was part of an ongoing effort to help give students at the Rock Island alternative school the tools they need to succeed.

Ambrose is one of 10 recipients of this year’s Characters Unite Awards, presented by the USA Network to honor people who have made contributions to fighting social injustice and prejudice.

The award will be presented during a ceremony at 12:30 p.m. at the Rock Island school.

Ambrose was nominated for the award for his leadership of a schoolwide diversity project last year about the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-Americans to be trained as pilots in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II.

Although the most visible element of the project is a mural in the school depicting Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., one of the first officers trained under the program, the project included students doing their own research about the Tuskegee Airmen, writing projects and math word problems written to include facts about aviation.

“Through it all, we were engaged in critical thinking,” Ambrose said.

The award comes with a $5,000 grant, which Ambrose said will be used to help fund school programs that help prepare students for vocational training or further education after they graduate.

The school has an enrollment of 95 students this year. Of its 22 graduates last year, 12 went on to post-secondary education or a vocational training program, a significant change from where the school was when he became principal five years ago.

“Five years ago, post-secondary planning wasn’t even on the radar here,” Ambrose said. “We weren’t graduating anybody.”

Ambrose said when he took the job, he asked then-Superintendent Rick Loy if he wanted the status quo at the school or wanted to see it reach its potential. He said Loy told him he wanted potential.

“That’s all I needed to hear, and we never looked back,” he said.

The school’s diversity projects are part of a curriculum that emphasizes teaching students to respect themselves and others, Ambrose said.

Jesse Adams, a retired high school art teacher who works as a substitute teacher at Thurgood Marshall, created the mural with the assistance of some students.

Student Jayvon Millbrook, 17, said he assisted Adams with the mural partly because of artistic skills and partly because he has wanted to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps since he was 8 or 9 years old. He intends to enlist when he finishes high school.

“It inspired me a lot,” he said.

Teacher Belle Jordan said one of the goals of the project was to not only teach students about the history of the Tuskegee Airmen and the prejudices they experienced and overcame, but to get the students to think about the barriers to success that exist in their own lives and how they can be overcome.

When Jordan asked 17-year-old student Nekai Gay if he felt like he was a second-class citizen, he said no.

“I can do anything I want,” he said.

“Basically, yes,” Jordan replied.

“No,” Gay responded. “Anything.”