Gary B. Coleman remembers paying an unexpected visit to the Baltimore County elementary school classroom of one of his two sons. The first thing he noticed was that his son and all the other black students were seated in the rear of the classroom.
"What kind of message is that?" Coleman asks. "What does that say?"
Coleman says he was told that the students were seated according to size, and the black students happened to be taller than their white counterparts. The explanation did not sit well with Coleman.
Other incidents did not sit well with him either. His sons came from a seemingly middle-class environment, had two educators as parents and scored well on standardized tests, but they were not achieving in the classroom.
"They seemed not to be getting the most out of school," Coleman says. "They were attending a school that was 70 percent black and the honors course had only four black girls in it, and no boys. I don't think Baltimore County does enough to teach people the value in diversity."
The county's school system has made improving minority achievement one of its main goals after studies showed that there is a lack of minority participation and achievement in programs for gifted and talented students. But many black parents believe that the school system has moved slowly toward making improvements.
Concerned for his sons, Coleman, a professor at Dundalk Community College, pulled them out of the county's public school system and enrolled them in private schools. He later moved them to City College in Baltimore, where they have done well academically, Coleman says.
Even though his own sons were out of academic danger, Coleman remained concerned about all the other black youngsters struggling in a school system that, he says, is "geared toward little white girls."
Last summer, Coleman put his concerns into action. With a $10,000 grant from the private William G. Baker Jr. Memorial Fund, Coleman ran a camp out of his home for nine black youngsters, all from female-headed households.
He plans to do so again next summer.
The boys, ages 8 and 9, all came from Turners Station or O'Donnell Heights, two predominantly black areas that feed into predominantly white schools.
Five days a week, six weeks throughout the summer, Coleman picked up the youngsters about 9 a.m. and took them to his home in Mount Washington. Assisted by his 14-year-old son, Ryan, and Morgan State University honors student Sean Hendricks, 19, Coleman set out to provide the boys with positive black male role models.
"I wanted them to see where I live," Coleman says. "It's not that I have so much. I just wanted them to see the possibilities."
A typical day for the boys would begin with math in the morning, some sort of physical activity including baseball, basketball, lacrosse or football during midmorning, then a break for lunch.
The boys spent the early afternoon either taking swimming lessons or making field trips to places such as the National Aquarium or the Banneker Douglass Museum of Afro-American Life and History in Annapolis.
The early evening was spent reading. "It got to a point where they gave me a hassle if I didn't do their reading and math," Coleman says.
The boys were dropped off at their homes about 5 p.m.
During the six weeks, the boys also had the opportunity to take several camping trips.
"I tried to stress to them that we all have strengths and weaknesses," Coleman says. "At camp, we emphasized that they at least have to make the effort."
Coleman got the inspiration for his camp after hearing Jawanza Kunjufi speak at Dundalk Community College, and reading Kunjufi's book "The Conspiracy Against Black Boys."
Both the book, and other studies, have shown that most children are about equal upon entering elementary school. However, after the third grade, black youngsters start to have major problems, Coleman says.
"The school system is set up for white females," he says. "Boys think education is a feminine activity. You don't have a lot of male teachers. You can go through the eighth grade and not see a male teacher.
"And, blacks going to predominantly white schools are more in jeopardy than blacks going to predominantly black schools. The dominant influence is white, and you realize you'll never be that," Coleman adds.
Coleman says teachers have told him they can see the difference in the boys. "I've been getting good comments from teachers," Coleman says. "I've been getting real positive feedback."
Debora Ford says she, too, has seen an improvement in her son, Donte. She said Donte, who "wouldn't say two words" to anyone, has become more outgoing. The 9-year-old spends more time on his homework, and his grades have improved, Ford says.
"He's still having problems with his math, but he went from an unsatisfactory to a satisfactory in spelling," she says.
Still visibly shy, Donte says that of all the things he did last summer, reading was his favorite, next to swimming. Donte says he plans to return to the camp this summer.
Assuming all the boys continue to do well, keep up their attendance in school and another grant is awarded, Coleman plans to invite the boys back to camp next summer.
"Ultimately, I want them to know it's not where you start out, it's where you end up," Coleman says. "I want them to know they can have some control over their lives. I want them to be 18 years old and have some options."