Project 2000 offers antidote to streets

December 04, 1990|By Michael A. Fletcher | Michael A. Fletcher,Evening Sun Staff

The derelict men hanging out on the stoops of vacant homes in the 1900 block of Pulaski St. seem befuddled by the line of chanting school children.

Some of the loiterers scatter. But others begin chanting along with the students, who are from West Baltimore's Robert W. Coleman Elementary School.

"Extra! Extra! Read all about it! We hate drugs and we're going to shout it!," yell the children, 404 strong, as they march behind the school's blue and gold banner.

Addie E. Johnson, principal of Coleman, conceived of the march, held early in the school year, as a way of confronting the drug menace in the neighborhood.

"We know that a large percentage of our children have to pass through that zone every day," Johnson says. "We want to let the community and students know we don't support the abuse of drugs."

Another Coleman antidote to the temptations of the streets is a new program called "Project 2000," in which men who have achieved success go into schools as volunteer teaching assistants and serve as role models for disadvantaged children, mainly black boys.

Johnson pushed successfully to have Coleman chosen as one of three city elementary schools at which the program was started this fall. The others are Coldstream Park and George G. Kelson.

"The idea is to have someone that these boys can identify with for achievement," Johnson says. "They have to learn that success does not have to come in the streets."

The personal problems that many of these children bring to school are not easy to detect on the placid surface of the neighborhood surrounding Coleman.

Except for the strip where the derelicts hang out, the neighborhood of row homes generally is well kept. Many senior citizens sweep the curbs and alleys daily.

Coleman, in the 2400 block of Windsor Ave., is a modern building on an attractive campus and is bright and clean inside. As city schools go, it is well supplied with books and equipment -- even computers -- and has an instructional staff of 37 -- 29 women and eight men.

For many of those in the student body, the facts of life include poverty and its attendant problems, such as drugs in the streets and possibly child abuse and lead-paint poisoning at home.

Ninety-six percent of Coleman's students are eligible for the federal free-lunch program, which allows a maximum income of $16,500 for a family of four.

As in many other city neighborhoods, heroin and cocaine -- including crack -- are said to be readily available. And drugs are causing families to disintegrate.

Johnson says a small but growing number of Coleman children have been abandoned by addicted parents and now live with grandparents. "You see more and more grandparents in charge," she says. "And I attribute that to the drug situation."

Homes without fathers are a more enduring problem, Johnson says. She estimates that up to 60 percent of Coleman's students live with one parent, nearly always the mother.

Enter Project 2000 and the 12 male volunteers who have been assigned to Coleman for the year.

Each of the men spends a minimum of a half day a week in the classroom. Nearly half of the student body now has such periodic classroom contact with one of the men.

The men are professional and blue collar. They include federal workers, college professors, students, radio station employees, even a prison guard. They serve in the classrooms as teaching assistants, checking homework, providing individual instruction to some students and even singing and acting out songs in music class.

Teachers say the men have a surprising impact. Some of it is obvious. For instance, one first-grade teacher at Coleman says many of her boys were reluctant to strike a pose during one classroom drill set to music. The problem was that the boys had trouble relating to the teacher's feminine, hands-on-hips stance and were reluctant to participate. But having a man in class to flex his bicep, or assume a hand on the chin thoughtful look, expanded that concept for the boys of the class.

The program's organizers say there is also a more subtle message. It says young black men can succeed at a wide variety of things. And the Project 2000 volunteers provide the kind of living proof that often has been absent from the lives of Coleman's children.

The program began two years ago in Washington, D.C. It was developed by Spencer H. Holland, an educational psychologist who now is director of Morgan State University's Center for Educating African-American Males.

Holland says he hopes the Baltimore version, run by the center at Morgan, eventually will expand almost tenfold, with some 300 teaching assistants in more than two-dozen Baltimore schools.

Because the program uses volunteers and is run from Morgan State by Holland and his colleagues, there is little or no cost to the school system.

Project 2000 is intended mainly to help black boys, and Holland expects most of the volunteers to be black men. But the program does not exclude white or female volunteers.

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