Holland pushes innovative programs for black students

UNORTHODOX EDUCATOR

December 02, 1990|By Holly Selby

At one time Spencer Holland looked at the American education system, looked at the high rate of imprisonment among young African American males, looked into the eyes of black children and became so filled with despair that he quit his job in education administration.

He just gave up, he says.

From 1982 until 1985, the man who in June became the director of the Center for Educating African American Males at Morgan State University, who is implementing a program designed to help young blacks in Baltimore schools, who has become something of a national spokesman on the subject of educating young blacks, was something of a dropout.

"I couldn't stand it anymore," he says, and shakes his head as though in disbelief. "I finally threw it all over. I went into computers. No people, no children."

While he worked as a computer consultant, Dr. Holland continued to rail against an education system that he felt didn't work, one that devalued its teachers and failed its students -- in particular, its young black males. "I didn't tell anyone who I was, you see," he says of his computer colleagues. "I would just go on and on. They couldn't figure it out, how did I know this stuff?"

And on the day that Martin Luther King's birthday became a national holiday, the Columbia University graduate's dark mood lifted. "I knew I had gotten all my money, all my scholarships because of people like him," he says. "I thought 'OK, Dr. King. I will go back. I will grit my teeth and I will go back.' "

The mood lifted, he says, but anger remains.

At 51, Dr. Holland, who is unmarried, is a small, dapper man, who has, at first meeting, a deceptively well-modulated voice. He advocates all-male, all-black classes -- as well as entire schools such as those proposed by the Milwaukee school board -- as a solution to the crisis in black male education. And as such, his views are political hot potatoes among both blacks and whites.

As he sits in his book-and-paper-filled office on the Morgan State campus, the mere mention of the educational needs of black boys incenses him: "You are telling me homicide is the No. 1 cause of death for black men?" he shouts, his voice rising two octaves and 10 times as many decibels.

"No! You give me money for our babies, and I will prevent the expansion of the prisons. Pay me now or pay me later! We cannot just build prisons, build prisons. I will stop the carnage this society has begun. Listen to me. List-en-to-me!"

Indeed, as national attention is increasingly focused on the plight of young black men -- nearly 20 percent of all black males drop out of high school, their unemployment rate is more than double that of whites, the leading cause of death for black men aged 15 to 24 is homicide -- people are beginning to listen.

Dr. Holland's programs -- some of which have been deemed discriminatory by education leaders -- and his methods -- some of which have been deemed abrasive even by his friends -- are receiving both more attention and more respect.

Respect, not universal acceptance. Norris Haynes, director of research, school development program, at the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven, says: "I understand the frustration that has led to the Milwaukee-type schools, but I am afraid of the message it will send to black males: that they are so different that they need separate schools. What will happen to their self-perception?

"And I'm afraid of the message sent to those charged with social policy decisions: that we need to separate these men out."

Nonetheless, ever since Dr. Holland appeared on "60 Minutes" in September, his phone has been ringing: morning talk shows, newspaper interviews, calls for advice from other school systems. "I have been telling them for years," he says and grins. "Lis-ten-to-me."

But the road to this respect has been bumpy. In 1987, the Dade County, Fla., public schools implemented an all-male, all-black class taught by a black male based upon Dr. Holland's recommendations. After a year, the program was deemed discriminatory by the Florida Board of Education -- and was disbanded.

The experience left Dr. Holland discouraged but undaunted. In 1988, he created Project 2000, a decade-long, mentoring-style program that provides a Washington public school class of 93 boys and girls with male volunteers who will work with them until their graduation in the year 2000. "Project 2000 is definitely a compromise. I thought, 'I'm not going to stop trying. It is a stopgap until schools will dare to try the solutions [he proposes].' "

His idea is to convince men -- particularly African-American men -- to spend one-half day, once or twice a week helping public school teachers -- in classes of both boys and girls. The project is designed to help boys, but girls won't be ignored, he says. "We're looking for men to help the teachers discipline, and boys respond better to men."

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