Conference inspires teachers to boost at-risk kids

January 23, 1994|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,Staff Writer

William W. Purkey delivers a message that's as touchy-feely as a talk by hug guru Leo Buscaglia and as humorous as a monologue by David Letterman.

"Live to enjoy," "take time for each other" and "I'm a nacho chip and the world's a dip" are just a few of his refrains.

But Dr. Purkey isn't the latest arrival on the book circuit or in the late-night TV wars. He's a university professor who travels around the country talking about a serious topic: children at risk of dropping out of school.

Yesterday, he was at Aberdeen High School, speaking to more than 200 teachers, educators and Harford County officials about ways to encourage educational success among students.

"Without a doubt, he's one of the best educators in the country today," said Jane Fleming, director of Aberdeen High School's Learning and Mentoring Program (LAMP), which invited Dr. Purkey and Dr. Judy Lehr to its midwinter conference.

Dr. Lehr, an assistant professor of education at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., and a former student of Dr. Purkey's, is the duo's "straight man," delivering facts and figures that reinforced their message: "If we invite children to learn, they will."

For every child held back in school, 50 percent will drop out, Dr. Lehr said. For every 1 million boys who dream of playing basketball, only 35 will make it to the National Basketball Association, she said.

'Children of promise'

Dr. Lehr urged his audience to "not look at children at risk as children in deficit, but as children of promise."

These messages, and Aberdeen's mentoring program, brought state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick to yesterday's meeting, despite the icy streets and 8:30 a.m. start time.

The school superintendent visited Aberdeen last November to learn about LAMP. "It's really about students and making students successful as learners," Dr. Grasmick said.

One-on-one mentoring

LAMP was started at Aberdeen High School two years ago by the principal, Robert S. Magee, as a way to help students at risk of dropping out. It has expanded to 35 other Harford County schools, including elementary and middle schools.

Mentors, who are school staff volunteers, work one-on-one with children on everything from homework to self-esteem.

LAMP "works because they won't accept that kids won't learn,Dr. Purkey said yesterday.

Others who gave up a Saturday morning to attend the conference included Harford County school Superintendent Ray R. Keech and County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann, who said that, as a mother of four, she realized, "it was a teacher who made a difference to them."

Second-year teacher Danyka Hoffman, a Bel Air High School teacher, said she had come to the conference because, "I saw a need for mentors."

Another teacher said she was interested in mentoring because she had almost dropped out of school but was encouraged to continue her education by a caring counselor.

'Battlefield soldiers'

"Teachers are the battlefield soldiers," Dr. Purkey told the audience, which often laughed and cheered at his comments.

"They're the most appreciative and the least appreciated."

"He's a pretty dynamic speaker," said Soubirous Sullivan, a teacher at Harford Technical School.

Dr. Purkey, a professor of counselor education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro when he is not talking to educators, also reminded teachers to take care of themselves. Exercise, take the salt shaker off the table and attack your clothes closet, he admonished gently.

"We don't have to go to school looking like we're raking leaves," said the nattily dressed instructor.

A respect for self translates into the classroom, he said.

"Every decent thing you do, you do forever," he said. "Any attempt is victory."

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