Mentoring benefits 'sisters' of all sizes Improvements noticeable throughout city school

June 20, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

It used to be that if you were a new student at Lakeland Elementary-Middle School, you could count on being pummeled by the fists of Tia Pyles.

School administrators say violence among girls at the South Baltimore school is a long-standing problem, but Tia, who at age 13 is 6 feet 1 inch tall, was a particularly hard case. Teachers regularly sent her to the principal's office. Last year, the school suspended her for three days, after a fight that "I definitely started," she says.

This year, Lakeland Assistant Principal Marilyn McDonald asked Tia, an eighth-grader, to be a mentor to elementary school students as part of a new Big Sister/Little Sister program designed to improve behavior and reduce fighting among girls at the school. The experience changed Tia and other eighth-graders, teachers say: No more fighting. Tia has even cut back on cursing.

"It was hard in the beginning," says Tia, a lifelong resident of neighboring Westport. "We couldn't wrestle anymore outside because the little kids would think we were fighting. With the little ones watching you, you really feel the pressure to behave."

That, McDonald says, is exactly the reaction she and Principal Judith Dixon were looking for when they started the program last fall. The women arrived at the school three years ago to find that girls were getting into fights and being sent to the office in surprising numbers -- sometimes more often than boys.

"You are seeing these kinds of behaviors in girls across the city," says Delores Creighton, a teacher who runs Big Sister and Big Brother programs at Carver Vocational-Technical High School. "That's why programs like these are so needed."

Last fall, Lakeland administrators launched the program with about 30 eighth-graders, who were paired with girls from kindergarten through fourth grade. The older children brought food or helped the younger ones with homework.

Tierra Carter, 13, counseled her "little sister" to work harder after the fourth-grader was suspended for playing hooky.

"I told her I wouldn't be her big sister anymore if she didn't stop it, and she changed after that," Tierra says.

A handful of students dropped out. (Tia's "little sister" had severe behavioral problems and was removed from the program, she says.) But a series of events -- a cookout, a bake sale, a trip to the National Zoo in Washington -- kept many students interested.

At closing ceremonies this week, little sisters gave big sisters roses and certificates to express their thanks.

McDonald and Dixon say girls in the program were disciplined less than other girls in the school.

They are hoping to expand the program next year. Lakeland has a middle school enrollment of about 270.

"The older girls were very protective," McDonald says. "You could see how these teen-age girls who are a little rough around the edges really become mother hens."

Tia changed more than most. Next year, she leaves behind friends like Tierra and April to go to Lake Clifton-Eastern High School, and teachers expect she'll succeed academically.

"Tia was a child who tried to put together a physical toughness to hide the fact that she was an intelligent young woman," says her physical education teacher, Roddey Sanders. "Now she knows it's OK to be intelligent."

At the closing ceremony, Dixon gave the rough-and-tumble sister of three older brothers a principal's award.

Said Dixon: "It seems like every staff member has said to me this year, 'Wow, Tia is becoming a young lady.' "

Pub Date: 6/20/96

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