After spending an hour working with Jefffers Hill Elementary School pupils on homework assignments, Eric Cole, a 17-year-old senior at Oakland Mills High School, watched with a look of accomplishment as his mentees played an intense game of Connect Four.
"I really wish someone came to me when I was in elementary school," Cole said. "It's nice that the kids have someone to talk to who is not a teacher."
The activities were part of a mentorship program at Jeffers Hill in which the Alpha Achievers of Oakland Mills High School provide hourlong tutoring twice a week.
Originally founded for African-American males, Alpha Achievers is now open to all high school males of every ethnic minority with at least a 3.0 grade point average. The tutoring is geared toward African-American males at Jeffers Hill who have been deemed at risk academically.
Jessica Smith, a school psychologist and counselor who helps to coordinate the program, said some of her pupils do not have strong male role models at home or in the community.
Kye Pinder, 9, a fourth-grader at Jeffers Hill, enjoys spending time with his mentor, Richard Duarte, 18, a senior from Columbia.
The two discuss everything from girls to video games.
"He's funny," Pinder said of Duarte. "I have someone to talk to about the same thing."
Other members of Alpha Achievers can be found tutoring pupils throughout the week at Oakland Mills Middle, Stevens Forest Elementary and at Oakland Mills High schools.
Frank Eastham, principal at Oakland Mills High School, said the Achievers are great for the school.
"It gives all of our men of color in the building role models to look up to," Eastham said. "It gets all of our males to believe that school can be cool. Our males can see that you can be a part of the popular school culture and be popular and involved in school events and activities."
Since the program started in 1997 with fewer than 20 members at Oakland Mills High, 90 members have graduated. The school has 65 members. A second chapter was started at Long Reach High two years ago, said Ken Jennings, a longtime Columbia resident who is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., a historically black organization that founded Alpha Achievers. The Long Reach Alpha Achievers chapter has close to 60 members.
"At the time we formed it, the boys didn't know each other and didn't get respect from other students," said Jennings, who added that the fraternity has been inundated with requests to add the program at other schools. "Some teachers didn't look at children with a high melanin skin tone as having the ability to achieve."
Prospective members must submit two letters of recommendation and sign an honor code.
"We've provided an important thing to the young men at that school," Jennings said. "If you want to be a leader, you have to have a good educational foundation."
After hearing members of the fraternity speak to a group of students about morals and sexual responsibility in 1997, Vincent James, a guidance counselor at Oakland Mills High, volunteered to be the adviser for the high school group.
"One of the things we were noticing was that our top-level kids were not progressing the way they should have been," James said.
Marcus Miller, 18, a senior at Oakland Mills, has been a member for three years and joined because he wanted to change the image of males of color in the school.
"They had been lacking," Miller said about role models at Oakland Mills. "It wasn't cool to get good grades. I wanted to fix that."
Joining the Alpha Achievers has kept Miller on top of his grades.
"It made me look at my academic standards," Miller said. "How am I going to mentor someone else if my grades are not good? It has kept my grades in check."
The group meets once a month. Committee members - which includes education, research and design, fundraising and membership - and officers meet more frequently.
In addition to community service, the group has held a mix of social events and fundraisers. Alpha Achievers held a video game tournament last month, and a second tournament will be held next month. The group has sold 150 calendars - "Alpha Elegance 2006" - in which members pose in tuxedos. Proceeds pay for college scholarships, field trips and operating costs.
The Alpha Achievers program is infectious at Oakland Mills, members say.
"I'd say it is highly respected," said Cole who has been a member since freshman year. "Being on the popular side, it seems like a cool thing to do."
Alex Williams, 18, a senior who has been a member since transferring to the school two years ago, said underclassmen, in particular, look up to Alpha Achievers.
"The freshmen get excited when they hear that I got into college or got a certain scholarship," said Williams, who has been accepted by several universities. "It makes me feel good."
Diane Stephenson-Moe, a guidance counselor and organizer of the tutoring program at Jeffers Hill, said her students tend to idolize rappers and athletes.
"Unfortunately, the males tend not to have positive role models, other than their parents," Stephenson-Moe said. "We like to have role models focused on academics. A lot think athletics is their only option."