When Willie Brown and his classmates started first grade in September, they were unruly, and most couldn't read their names or basic words like "the" or "cat." But yesterday, Willie stood next to his teacher and proudly read a page from his textbook.
It was a testimony to the early success of an experiment conducted this year at Robert Coleman Elementary School in Baltimore -- an all male-class designed to help the boys catch up with girls who tend to learn faster at that age.
But there is more to this class than reading and writing. The boys tend to come from needy, single-parent families; and the class also aims to improve their self-esteem and give them a positive male role model in teacher Carter Bayton.
School officials say they have seen dramatic improvement.
All but one of the 20 students are reading at the second-grade level. Discipline problems have almost disappeared. Attendance has improved. And during the year, the class even defeated a group of first-grade girls in a math competition.
"I'm very proud. I knew these kids were going to go far. The potential was there," said Mr. Bayton. "I'm all for the all-male class -- it's working."
Mr. Bayton said he sees himself as a big brother figure to the boys -- "someone they can talk to and learn from." He said the key to the program's success lies in the teacher's ability to be a strong disciplinarian and a good motivator.
"I set high expectations and realistic goals," he said. "Once you set your goals and let them know you expect them to do the right thing, they'll want to. Once you give them the confidence that they can do it, they'll produce. They feel good about themselves."
The boys seem to like being in class together. "We just don't like girls," said Willie, 6.
"I think they see it as special," said Addie Johnson, principal at Coleman.
The class does a lot of peer teaching, said Mr. Bayton. "They enjoy helping each other with work and homework. They love to see the progress as a team."
The all-male class is an offshoot of Project 2000, a program being tried in three city schools. The brainchild of Dr. Spencer Holland, director of Morgan State University's Center for Educating African-American Males, Project 2000 brings adult male volunteers to classrooms to serve as teaching assistants and role models for young boys.
Having positive male role models is central to the development of a young boy, and especially crucial for black boys from single-parent families, said Dr. Holland. It shows them "there's another way. . . . There are other adults in the community who will parent you," he said.
Dr. Holland said he believes nurturing youngsters early will help reduce the high illiteracy rates among black teens and young men.
"Baltimore is in the forefront of the movement to concentrate efforts to educate the African-American male child," he said.
The boys in Mr. Bayton's class frequently spend time together outside of school, playing ball games or going on trips. Something as routine as having a man take the time to teach the fundamentals of basketball can do a lot to boost a child's self-esteem, Dr. Holland said.
School officials caution that they won't know any concrete results of the experiment until they see how the boys do as they progress in school. "The real test will come years from now," said Douglas Neilson, spokesman for the city school system.
The boys will stay together next year -- and perhaps longer -- with Mr. Bayton as their teacher. They may be ready to be "reintegrated" with girls in the fourth grade, said Dr. Holland. By then, "the self-esteem basis will have been laid," he said.
The class plans to attend a special summer session at Coleman, in conjunction with the Project 2000 program. There they'll continue to work on verbal and math skills and spend afternoons on physical education and "cultural enrichment" activities.
Summer school allows students to maintain progress without having to start each school year with a review of the past year's material, said Dr. Holland.