Marley Elementary program provides safety net for boys

Mentor gives a message as model to boys

December 20, 2006|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,Special to The Sun

The five boys at Marley Elementary School in Glen Burnie are most fond of Mondays and Fridays. Not just because those are pizza and chicken nuggets days in the school cafeteria, though they'll acknowledge that's an added bonus.

No, the two days are special because that's when the fifth-graders get to eat lunch, talk and play for 45 minutes with Moses Lattimore, a recently retired U.S. Postal Service employee who serves as a mentor at the school.

Over the past two years, Lattimore, a 64-year-old deacon at Community Baptist Church in Pumphrey who has no grandchildren of his own, has mentored 11 fourth- and fifth-grade boys at Marley Elementary. Most of the boys he works with are black and were placed with him because teachers felt they lacked a strong male presence in their lives. It's part of a volunteer program at the school that's becoming so successful that Principal Donna Williman wants to bring more mentors into the school to work with students.

"So many black boys become statistics; too many go to jail or get into drugs," said Tasheka Sellman, assistant principal at Marley Elementary. "And you hear some of them say, `If I only had a role model.' We saw a need here for some of our boys, and we wanted to catch them before they fell through the cracks."

Lattimore's work takes place at a time when there is growing concern over the future of black males in Maryland and across the country. Last week, a Maryland education task force recommended stronger mentorship - rather than punishment - for black males, who are over-represented in special education classes and are more likely to be suspended for discipline problems.

Among their peers, black males are the least likely to graduate. Only 74 percent finish high school, compared with 87 percent of their white peers, according to the State Department of Education. They are the least likely to be placed in advanced courses, and more of them are in jail than in college, the task force found. The task force is calling on local school districts to put programs in place that would create a safety net for black youths. One task force official said the numbers underscore a problem with a "crushing sense of urgency."

Lattimore, who is black, felt that urgency long before the task force released its 18 recommendations.

For many of the boys, he is one of the few people who make it to Grandparents Day in May, or chaperone on field trips. He is there in the audience during holiday concerts and on the playground during recess.

They play board games together. Their favorite is Life, the game that takes players through different paths - college, marriage, babies, winning the lottery - on the whim of a dial they spin with each turn.

Lattimore uses the games to talk about college, family and responsibility. They talk about how not to bend to peer pressure.

"He tells us to be a leader and not a follower," said Daniel Bloom, 10. "Because when you follow someone doing bad things, then you get in trouble. But when you lead and do good things, then that's, like, good."

They talk about not getting too defensive, not losing their tempers with classmates and teachers. They talk about how bad behavior can scar their reputations through middle and high school.

"If you burn your hand on a stove, and you don't do it again, you still have that scar on your hand," Lattimore once told the boys. "It's just like that. You have to be respectful and behave well now, or else you'll carry that mark on you for a long time."

They talk about careers. When one of his boys dreamily tells him he wants to be a basketball player, Lattimore says:

"Don't you like animals? Why not be a veterinarian?"

The boy shrugs.

Lattimore pushes on: "It's a great career. You get to help animals and you can earn a nice salary to take care of your family, your children."

Lattimore pauses a bit and adds, "Marriage first, then children."

They're the kind of talks Lattimore's grandmother used to give him. The kind of lectures he used to get from neighbors and church elders when he was growing up in Pumphrey, in northern Anne Arundel County, with seven brothers and sisters. When his parents were too busy making ends meet by doing housekeeping work and toiling in the gravel pits, community members raised the children, Lattimore said. It is something, he said, that is too rare these days.

"When I was coming up, I had people around me that didn't let me stray, go the wrong way," he said. "Now you have adults teaching kids to do wrong. I'm trying to stop these boys from slipping. We're losing too many of them."

Lattimore is working closely with one boy in particular: Raymond Samuel, a 10-year-old with an eager smile and a quick hug.

Lattimore is worried that Raymond, who quickly gets upset when teased, is one of the boys on the edge. He's smart, wants to learn, and shows his interest by using mature vocabulary words when he speaks and writes.

But Lattimore said he's worried that Raymond, as he moves through middle and high school, could buckle under peer pressure and forget the love of learning he has now.

So Lattimore works with Raymond individually on Tuesdays to help him develop a tougher skin and an even-keel demeanor. If Raymond is less concerned about what his peers think of him, he can focus on learning and succeeding in school, Lattimore said.

He starts and ends every session by asking Raymond to repeat: "I'm a promise. I'm a potential. I'm a possibility."

If they keep saying it, Lattimore said, "one day, they'll start really believing that they can do anything."

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