No-nonsense upbringing shaped founder of mentor program

December 04, 1990|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Evening Sun Staff

While growing up in Mitzpah, N.J., Spencer Holland took the nickname "Speedy" so he would be accepted by his schoolmates.

Holland was a small, energetic teen-ager who desperately sought a street-wise image in the small town 20 miles west of Atlantic City.

But, when Holland's grades dropped and he failed American history, his parents grounded him. He was allowed out of the house only to attend school and church.

His parents forced him to study and he got back on the educational track that eventually took him to college and graduate school.

Today, Holland recalls the story as an example of how parental intervention can help a boy win the battle between educational achievement and peer pressure.

Holland was the first member of his family to graduate from college and he attributes his success to a "no-nonsense father."

"When he said to do something, you did it," says Holland of his late father, Harrison, who was a truck driver. "My father talked in a scream. He was no-nonsense and my work habits come from him and my mother."

That strong male bond forged an impression on Holland that evolved into the concept behind the Center for Educating African-American Males, a Morgan State University project that he directs. It sends male volunteers, mainly blacks, into public schools to serve as role models for disadvantaged boys.

Holland says many black youths need a strong male influence to motivate them in school because many come from disadvantaged backgrounds and homes without fathers. He points out that, in Baltimore, the median income for black families is about $6,300 less than that for whites. Moreover, 46 percent of the city's black households are headed by a single parent, nearly always the mother.

Chain-smoking in his small office on the Morgan State campus, Holland, a 51-year-old bachelor who is an educational psychologist, speaks like a zealous preacher about the need for black adults to reach out to young black students, particularly males.

The crusade has brought him national attention, including a recent appearance on the TV show "60 Minutes," and he believes his ideas could be the salvation of urban male students.

While the role-model program includes female black students, Holland maintains that there is a distinct social difference between the sexes. He says that females heed the advice of their mothers while young black males fall into competitive peer groups that have radically different focuses.

"Quite frankly, women can't raise boys to be male," he observes. "We don't have the same interests. Who in the hell wants to sit around talking about babies and clothes and those kinds of things? My pitch is primarily to African-American males because only an African-American male can really walk a boy through what he's going to have to go through in his culture."

A few years ago, Holland came up with the idea of placing black male students from kindergarten to the beginning of fourth grade into classrooms with black male teachers and volunteers. Whites and females were to be excluded from those groupings.

The all-black approach, called "immersion," was ordered halted by the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights division in 1988 after the city of Miami, Fla., experimented with kindergarten and first-grade classes restricted to black males. Since then, Miami officials have hired Holland as a consultant to help implement a black mentor program that is not limited to male students.

Holland believes that young black males yearn for male discipline and role models. To him, children think: "'Dad can handle me. . . . Dad is bigger than I am . . . but you can get around Mom,' " Holland says. "These little boys are frightened. Two major emotions in inner city boys are anger and fear."

Holland says he launched his first actual role-model program, in a Washington, D.C., elementary school, after the need for it was dramatized by that city's crime statistics in the 1980s. He says he was shocked by the fact that more black youths were being murdered or sent to jail than were going to college or into the workforce.

The problem there and elsewhere remains critical, Holland says, and only black men can turn it around.

"Things are so terrible that if they get any worse there would be rioting in the streets," he says. "We have lost a generation of African-American males out there. It is heart-rendering to think about it, so I just can't dwell on it."

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