Project 2000 needs a few good men

February 04, 1992|By Michael Fletcher

At Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in West Baltimore, five third-grade boys learn a thing or two about being men two evenings a week -- in their ballet class.

Likewise, a group of Coleman first-graders learn about community service by giving monthly food donations to a local shelter for the homeless. The students also visit the center regularly to help serve meals.

Those are but two of the changes brought to the school by Project 2000, a program that brings men into schools as volunteer teaching assistants. The idea is for the men to serve as role models for children -- mainly black boys who often are starved for male guidance, say Project 2000 organizers.

This is the second year the program has been at Coleman, one of three Project 2000 schools in Baltimore. The other schools are Coldstream Park and George G. Kelson elementary. The program is also in its second year at these schools.

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

Project 2000 is based on the idea that disadvantaged boys are more likely to succeed if they get to know successful men. With more and more boys -- especially those who are poor -- being raised in female-headed households, there is a great need for them to see successful men up close. The influence of the men would help counter the kind of male behavior too many boys pick up from the street, and broaden their definition of success, say proponents of Project 2000.

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, reading with the children or introducing them to extra-curricular activities.

The teaching assistants are carefully screened. All go through a training workshop. And, apparently, they are making a big impact -- at least in Coleman.

"The results are immediately evident," says Spencer H. Holland, director of Morgan State University's Center for Educating African-American Males, which coordinates the program.

At Coleman, where 42 men participated in Project 2000 last year, no students were left back, student achievement was up and disciplinary removals were way down.

"It is the male presence. These kids immediately cleave to men," Mr. Holland says. "They cleave to your gender. Plus, the added presence reduces the adult/child ratio in the class. The teachers have assistants and that helps keep the boys on track."

Project 2000 began in 1988 in Washington. In Baltimore, a $439,522 Abell Foundation grant funds the Morgan center.

Last year, 102 men -- from prison guards, to retired landscapers, to radio disc jockeys -- volunteered in the program in Baltimore. And, Mr. Holland says, there are similar numbers this year.

Indeed, his idea of grouping black boys together in classes is catching on. He says that close to two dozen elementary schools in Baltimore have some sort of "same gender" class in operation.

Coleman has launched two all-girl classes to go along with two all-male groups. The idea is to raise self-esteem among girls and to plant the seeds for avoiding problems girls may encounter later, such as teen-age pregnancy.

"We teach them to build their self-esteem as young ladies," Ms. Johnson says. "We make it known that it would be a shame for them to fall into the same cycle that has sidetracked so many others. We want them to know that they have a lot to offer."

In some places, the Project 2000 concept has been shunned as nothing more than a throwback to the separate-but-equal days of segregation. In 1987, for instance, the Dade County, Fla., public schools implemented an all-male, all-black class taught by a black male based upon Mr. Holland's recommendations. But one year later, the Florida Board of Education found the program to be discriminatory and the class was disbanded.

"Many of our children come from communities where drugs have a big impact," says Ms. Johnson. "We have more single female-headed households now. With drastic changes in population, we have to make drastic measures."

And to date, Project 2000, and related programs, have encountered no formal protests here.

"The community in Baltimore knows we need to try something," Mr. Holland explains. "We have to do something to assist these boys who are failing like crazy."

The problems of black males are indeed daunting. They drop out of school in high numbers, are unemployed in high numbers, and end up murdered or in prison in much higher numbers than other groups.

But many people believe programs like Project 2000 can make a dent in those problems.

"If we find that focusing in on young males at an early age is an effective means of intervention, perhaps we can reduce the number of males who are incarcerated and increase the number of achievers," says Ms. Johnson. "The most important goal is to decrease the number of homicides among boys 18 to 21. If we get these boys to bond to one another early in life, maybe the tendency to want to take another person's life will not be there."

If the new atmosphere at Coleman is any indication, Project 2000 has a chance of making that kind of difference.

"It made a tremendous difference in the way the boys performed throughout the school," Ms. Johnson says. "It provided support for the young males, who really tried to model themselves after some of these guys. The students carried themselves more neatly, and they had an esprit de corps that I just hadn't observed here in previous years."

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