When school started last year, all of the boys in Richard J. Boynton's second-grade class were below their grade level in reading skills, and most were behind in math as well.
Young as they were, some of those pupils at Matthew A. Henson Elementary School in West Baltimore had shown attendance and behavior problems in the past.
And Boynton, who oversaw the unique class aimed at boosting the performance and self-esteem of urban boys, often saw children respond with their fists when challenged by a fellow student.
But after a year in the all-boys class, things have turned around dramatically.
"Grades are improved, attendance is definitely improved," said Boynton, who is shepherding the same group of boys in the third grade this year. "I would say that roughly 95 percent of the class is at or above grade level.
In fact, he said, "some scored third-or fourth-grade reading levels. The same thing with math."
Students have stopped paying trips to the principal's office for disciplinary problems.
And school officials see something else: a new sense of pride and self-esteem among children who, before last year, may have had little use for school.
"Something happened in that room with them," said Leah Hasty, the Henson school principal, who initiated the all-boys class. "It's remarkable. This wasn't the highest achieving group of boys."
School officials do not have detailed test data on students in the class and caution that the all-male schoolroom model may not be right for every school.
But the program's apparent initial success has inspired a similar all-boys first-grade class at the nearby Robert Coleman Elementary School.
The program was started last year as a way to inspire young boys who otherwise might be turned off to school work.
School officials speculated that an all-boys class might be less inhibiting to some of those students than a coed class, especially because girls tend to mature faster than boys.
"This gave them a chance to show they could be leaders," said Hasty.
And with a male teacher, the class offered those boys the kind of strong, male role model that many lacked in their personal lives, according to Boynton.
"Most of these kids come from single-parent homes, they come from homes with single mothers, grandmothers," said Boynton. In school, they often encountered only female teachers, principals and guidance counselors.
As a result, he said, "a lot of the boys lose interest in school in the primary grades. They think of it as being 'sissified.'"
Boynton's job was to help turn that image around, "showing them it's OK to read, it's OK to be smart."
"I try to give them a strong foundation in the primary grades," he said. "By the time they get to the fourth or fifth grade, they can compete with any girl in the class."
Last year, Boynton's approach included a hefty amount of extra-curricular activity.
For example, when he learned that just two of the 17 students had library cards, Boynton arranged to take class members on a subway ride to the Enoch Pratt Central Library to get their cards.
On another occasion, class members took a field trip with Boynton to the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum in Washington.
Boynton also enlisted the support of parents in encouraging their children to complete homework assignments.
The class had visits from high-level state and city officials, including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who read to the students, city school Superintendent Richard C. Hunter, and state school Superintendent Joseph L. Shilling.
The result was a strong performance by many of the students, who made significant advances in their math and reading skills over the course of the year.
For example, one pupil started the year with math skills at grade level 1.6 and with reading skills at grade level 1.8. By year's end, that same student had improved his math skills to the 3.6 grade level, and his reading skills had jumped to grade level 4.4.
This year, school officials are considering a more formal process to measure the performance of students in the all-male class, compared with students in coed classes.
All of the students were promoted to the third grade, and all but two of the original 17 returned to Boynton's third grade class this year. (Two students moved from the district and several new students joined the group this year.)
Boynton said he also saw an improvement in the students' behavior and in the amount of responsibility they take in being prepared for class.
"I'm not saying it's a Garden of Eden in there; we still have problems," said Boynton, adding that the students "know right from wrong," and are less likely to respond by fighting when there is a conflict with a fellow student.
Some of those changes are is evident to outsiders as well, including Jessie L. Douglas, director of the central district elementary schools, which includes Henson.
"I have seen the boys appear to be more willing to respond to questions from the teacher and to be more attentive," she said. "I really think it's been a positive program."
In particular, she cited the amount of attention the students received from their teacher, and "the fact that they have a male teacher. There's not very many males in elementary school."
Douglas was cautious about how broadly the program would be expanded outside of the two schools now working with all-boy classes.
"It depends upon the principal, in terms of the collaboration with the teachers and parents," she said. "You have to have a team type of spirit."
But while not every principal would choose to have such a program, "I think they should have an option," she said.
Boynton, meanwhile, has high hopes for his students this year. He noted that the boys all returned to school knowing the rules and what was expected of them.
"Hopefully, the sky's the limit this year," he said.