When Yale men’s basketball head coach James Jones was a young child, he wanted to grow up to be an astronaut named Johnny Blastoff. On Wednesday, Jones visited New Haven’s Vincent Mauro School to encourage elementary school students to follow their own dreams.

Jones spoke with a group of approximately 65 fourth-graders at the school about the importance of education. The speech was part of a series of events for the school’s African American Cultural Heritage Month.

Vincent Mauro’s school theme is “Students + Parents + Teachers + Community = Great Success,” said Sean Hardy, the program coordinator for African American Cultural Heritage Month and a full-time teacher’s aide. He said the series of speakers during the month fits in with the school’s focus on the community.

“They also need to know who is a role model in our community and that they can also achieve,” Hardy said.

Jones praised education as the way to achieve in life, noting that it was his education that allowed him to reach his goals.

“Education is key to just about everything,” Jones said. “The more you understand, the more you realize what you’re reading, the better you’re going to be.”

When one student asked whether Jones had ever met Michael Jordan, he used the story of his meeting with Jordan to emphasize his point. He explained that without an education, he never would have become a coach and never would have gone to the camp where he met Jordan.

Jones said he makes three or four visits each year to middle schools to hold shooting clinics. He said he tries to teach kids about listening and understanding.

“I think it’s important to give back to the community,” Jones said.

At one point, Jones asked students what they wanted to do when they grow up. When some said they wanted to go into athletics, Jones said there was nothing wrong with that choice, but urged them to prepare for other options as well.

“One-half of one percent of all the people that play high school basketball make it to the pros — so what are you going to do if you don’t make it?” Jones said. “You need to find out what it is you want to be as an adult.”

He said his basketball players had scholarship offers to play for free tuition at other schools but had chosen instead to pay to go to Yale because they valued the education they would receive. Jones said he had only recognized the value of education after the end of his freshman year in college, when a counselor helped him find the right track. During his junior and senior years at the University at Albany, Jones said he maintained a GPA above 3.5.

Denise Coles-Cross, the Vincent Mauro principal, said the school’s African American Cultural Heritage Month Committee meets early each year and decides on a theme for the month. This year’s theme, world peace, is the same as last year’s, Coles-Cross said. This central theme is integrated through all of the disciplines.

“World peace is very important at this time — to keep pushing that theme,” Coles-Cross said.

The school will host other visitors from Yale later in the month. Clinical professor Edward Joyner of the Yale Child Study Center will discuss values and the importance of education with fifth-graders, and Steppin’ Out will perform for second through fifth-graders.

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