Volunteers inspire youths to try harder

December 03, 1990|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Evening Sun Staff

It happened in an elementary school classroom in Anacostia, one of Washington, D.C.'s toughest sections.

A volunteer teaching assistant, Albert Antony Pearsall 3rd, a computer security specialist with the U.S. Department of Justice, was having a discussion with students about what their parents do for a living.

"My father is a drug dealer," one boy blurted out. None of the other children seemed surprised by the revelation.

For Pearsall, it showed the need that he and other volunteers are trying to fill -- positive role models for black boys who otherwise might gravitate toward the streets.

Washington's small but promising role-model program, now being tried in Baltimore, is based on the simple idea that disadvantaged boys are more likely to succeed if they get to know successful men. School achievement scores suggest that the program works.

As part-time teaching assistants, Pearsall and several other volunteers work with three classes -- about 80 children -- at Stanton Elementary in Anacostia, the only school in Washington with the program.

Each volunteer helps out in the classroom for a minimum of half a day each visit. His activities may include talking about his job, checking homework and reading with the children.

The teaching assistants are carefully screened. All go through a mandatory training workshop. The program differs from one-on-one mentor, or "Big Brother," programs in that the volunteers deal with the children in groups.

Called "Project 2000," the program began in 1988, the creation of Spencer H. Holland, an educational psychologist then working with the Washington school system and now the director of Morgan State University's Center for Educating African-American Males.

A $439,522 Abell Foundation grant funds the Morgan center, which coordinates the program, and there is little or no cost to the school systems that adopt it.

There now are versions of Project 2000 in Dade County, Fla., and in Baltimore, where the program began this fall at three elementary schools.

* Children tend to pattern their behavior after the adults they know, most importantly members of their own family. But many black families are headed by single mothers, with no father or other positive male role model present for the children.

* That pattern continues into elementary school, a culture dominated by female teachers and principals.

* As a result, boys in particular often are starved for the kind of male role model that would encourage academic achievement. Eventually, those boys may discount the importance of school and begin to lag behind their female classmates.

* But, if the children meet successful, caring men who are willing to volunteer their time in school, the students may be inspired to do better academically.

Do such programs succeed? The answer is a guarded "yes," according to three education experts contacted by The Evening Sun. They are Delores P. Dickerson of Howard University, Vito Perrone of Harvard University and Jomills Henry Braddock 2nd of Johns Hopkins University.

They say that volunteers can help motivate children, but it can take a long time and can be hard to measure.

Dickerson, associate dean of Howard's school of education, cautions that "no one can come into a classroom once a week and have any demonstrated difference immediately." Eventually, however, "it may have an academic benefit that the child tries harder."

Perrone, of Harvard's school of education, says that disadvantaged children "see very few people who look like them positions of authority or respect. And I think that's devastating."

Role models can be especially important for young black males, says Braddock, director of the Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students at the Johns Hopkins University.

Women wield so much influence that boys view "the behaviors that they are asked to emulate as being feminine behaviors," Braddock says.

Elementary school is critical in shaping a child's attitude toward academics, Holland points out.

In the earliest grades, children tend to be excited about learning, RTC he says. "You go into kindergarten, first grade, the boys are jumping out of their seats."

Yet by the fourth grade, many inner city black males have backed off, in part due to peer pressure; they taunt each other about "getting A's, just like the girls."

"Being called a 'nerd' and a 'brain' is not a positive nickname in the boys' world," Holland says.

But he points with pride to the performance last year of the 83 second-grade students who participated in the program in Washington's Stanton Elementary.

The school conforms to the demographics cited by proponents of the program. Stanton is in a low-income area, and many of its students come from female-headed households.

Drug trafficking and related violence are a brooding presence in the neighborhood, according to Yolanda Coleman, counselor at Stanton.

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