Men go to school to help

Mentors: Halstead Academy recruits male volunteers to guide and tutor elementary school pupils.

April 19, 1999|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

Before Khaliq Uqdah met Steven Wright, the 7-year-old Halstead Academy pupil could barely read. He brought zeros home for missing homework assignments. He scored below 60 on most exams. He was frequently referred to the office.

Like so many of his peers at what was once known as Hillendale Elementary -- where about 60 percent of pupils are raised by single mothers and test scores rank near the bottom of the school system -- the first-grader was struggling.

Then in walked Wright, a bright and eager 25-year-old Towson University senior looking to give back to a needy community. He found an ambitious program at the elementary school called The 100 Halstead Men. He found Khaliq, who needed someone to help with his spelling. To talk about his family. To play catch. To remind him to behave.

"It's wonderful to have community men as positive role models for our young students," said Principal Carolyn Smith, who arrived a year ago at Halstead. "It's a fairly unique program because you don't see this many men coming into the schools to volunteer in most cases. It's usually the moms.

"They encourage the children to improve, and encouragement is what our boys need," Smith said. "I've really seen a difference there."

Started in November, the 100 Halstead program provides male role models to children. Every day of the school week, men from the surrounding communities help in classrooms, monitor cafeteria lunches or mentor pupils after school.

The program is credited with bringing pupil disciplinary problems down to less than 200 referrals to the school's student support office this year, compared with 1,700 in 1995.

Of the 14 boys involved in the mentoring program, referrals have dropped from 52 in the beginning of the school year to 10 after 100 Halstead started.

Those figures represent significant progress at a school where 72 percent of the pupils get free or reduced lunches and where less than half of the student body scores satisfactorily on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests.

The school made slight improvements in MSPAP scores last year -- merely baby steps, school officials said, but an improvement nevertheless.

"I joined this group because of what I started seeing at school," said Al Bills, 41, chief custodian since 1983 and a 100 Halstead member. "The kids were more disrespectful to adults and each other. It was their attitude.

"I started asking, `What can I do?' " Bills said.

The solution began in the form of doughnuts. Halstead's family involvement coordinator, Gina A. Dorsey, created a "Donuts with Dads" event a year ago, which brought 70 fathers in for breakfast with their children. They discussed schoolwork, achievements and goals. "Muffins with Moms" was already successful.

"The doughnut dads said they wanted to do more for the children," said Dorsey, who oversees 100 Halstead with James Thompson, student support coordinator. "They didn't want it to be a one-time-only thing. These dads wanted to make a difference, too."

Members came from all backgrounds -- a county councilman, a pastor, a county police officer, teachers and college students. Not all had children in the school. Not all of them were fathers.

Their work began slowly. They handed out work sheets in classrooms. Watched pupils eat lunch. Checked out books in the library.

Then the men took to the streets. They walked neighborhoods near the school and asked children who were playing outside about the future. They stressed the importance of good grades, attendance and good behavior.

In the mentorship part of the program, fourth-grade teacher Robert White works daily with 9-year-old Joshua to help him work out behavioral problems in his third-grade class. They discuss the high and low points of the week, then draft a list of goals.

Joshua promises to do all his homework assignments, stay out of the student support office, treat all teachers with respect, get along with his peers and stop running out of his classroom. In return, White promises to be more lenient, spend more time with Joshua and not get upset when the third-grader has a misstep.

But excuses like "One of my classmates was getting on my nerves" get Joshua nowhere. Mentors stress to their pupils that they must take responsibility for their actions.

It is with that mind-set that 100 Halstead has grown in membership from a couple of dozen men to 65, and now the group is 103 strong.

For Khaliq, who has seen his father five times in his life, 100 Hal- stead seemingly has turned his life around.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Khaliq and Wright were playing a game. Wright's hands hovered over Khaliq's small, upwardly turned palms. The objective was to slap Wright's hands before he pulled them away. Whenever Khaliq missed, the two laughed.

Wright, who served three years in the Army and is finishing a psychology and mass communications degree, has no children. But as often as possible, he rushes to Hillendale between classes, during lunch or before work at a grocery store to spend time with Khaliq.

"We talk about his girlfriend, his family and a half-brother he says he's never met before," Wright says. "I enjoy hanging out with him. I get as much fun out of this as he does."

The change in Khaliq was almost immediate, school officials said. Spelling still is difficult for Khaliq, but the boy excelled in math. He has not been referred to the office since the program began.

His mother, Danielle Uqdah, 29, who also is raising a 10-year-old daughter, said, "He's bringing 100s, 90s and 80s home on his tests. The program is wonderful. 100 Halstead Men is the only thing that holds me to this school," she said.

Turning around to make sure Wright was not listening, Khaliq smiled and whispered, "He's my best friend."

Pub Date: 4/19/99

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