When John Hunter walks into Swansfield Elementary School in Howard County, black students often swarm around him -- even the students he doesn't teach.
Mr. Hunter, 37, sometimes wonders if he might be the only black man the students see on a regular basis.
"Sometimes it's hard being the black male," Mr. Hunter said. "You have to be many things to many people.
"But first, I have to be honest with myself and about myself. Some parts of me are African, and some parts of me are American. I bring both parts into the classroom."
Mr. Hunter is what many school systems are now seeking out, a minority and a male.
Last week, the National Education Association issued a report citing little progress in recruiting men and minorities as classroom teachers. The figures show that Maryland lags behind the nation as a whole in attracting male teachers, although its overall percentage of minority teachers is somewhat higher than the national figure.
In an effort to keep pace with the changing demographics of the state and the country, school systems in the Baltimore metropolitan area areseeking to create a teaching population as diverse as the student body.
Currently, minority students make up about 38 percent of the region's 343,000 students. But minorities account for only 18.5 percent of the region's teachers, and black males represent only 3.5 percent of the teaching population. Statewide figures are roughly the same.
The number of males looking for teaching careers -- especially minority males -- has grown slowly over the past 10 years.
In 1981, only about 1.5 percent of the 1,660 students seeking undergraduate degrees in education at the University of Maryland's College Park campus were black males.
By 1991, the proportion of black males had grown to 2.6 percent, but the number of education majors had decreased to 1,287. So the number of black male teachers being produced remained virtually the same.
Fred Douglass, a spokesman for Morgan State University, which houses the Center for Educating African American Males, said the college has been encouraging men to enroll in teaching programs but hasn't had much success.
"We feel it's very important to provide role models for our young men before they have an opportunity to get into trouble," Mr. Douglass said.
"One of the problems we found is that often our young men don't see any black male teachers until the seventh grade. And often they don't see them then."
Earl Slacum, principal of Steven's Forest Elementary School in Howard County, said it's more important now than ever for black men to seek teaching careers, particularly in elementary schools.
"There have always been men in education," Mr. Slacum said. "But as a man, looking to be the breadwinner, most men had to take the positions that allowed them to provide for their families."
As a result, he said, black male teachers tended to gravitate toward higher-paying administrative positions rather than staying in the classroom. "Yet, there's a need for more males at the elementary level. There's an increase of single-parent homes, most often headed by women. The school may be the only opportunity for students to see men in a positive role," he said.
More and more school systems are adopting the same view. But their minority recruitment programs are new, and recent budget cuts have made it difficult to obtain money for them.
In Anne Arundel County, the school system has been trying to implement Project MINT, a minority teacher-training program, for more than a year. But the collaborative venture among the school system, Anne Arundel Community College and Bowie State University has yet to get off the ground.
The colleges, which were supposed to provide tuition for about 20 students, apparently have backed away because of the cost. And Anne Arundel County Executive Robert R. Neall has eliminated MINT funding from his budget.
In Baltimore County, the school system implemented a Minority Student Achievement and Participation report, part of a program that also calls for the hiring and promoting of minority teachers. -- But the program has come under fire from black parents who say the school system is not moving fast enough.
Baltimore County and Baltimore City also are participating in a program with the Johns Hopkins University that recruits minorities who don't have traditional education degrees but want to teach.
John Bowden, 25, a special education teacher at Golden Ring Middle School in Baltimore County, is a participant in the Hopkins program. Mr. Bowden, who has found himself teaching mostly black males, said he believes his race may be an advantage in the classroom.
"I had teachers warn me at the beginning of the year about certain students," Mr. Bowden said. "They told me, 'He'll give you nothing but trouble.'