A haven for at-risk students

Meade High counselor, role model urges boys to think big

April 15, 2007|By Nina Sears | Nina Sears,Sun reporter

On a recent afternoon in the Meade High School library, students click-clacked away on computers and vigorously debated the key points of a group project that was coming due, but freshman Matthew Baxter sat apart from the hubbub, in a small quiet room behind the checkout desk, and wondered why he didn't have a role model.

"I know what role models are supposed to do," he said. "Be there for you. Look out for you. Help you. I've grown up 16 years without somebody, never had it, so having it now won't really make a difference."

He was talking to Harvey Williams, a former member of the Air Force who is leading a group counseling session for at-risk boys at Meade. Williams faces the challenge of helping boys who tell him they don't need help.

Williams says his persistence over the past seven months with some of the boys has helped improve their behavior, grades and home life.

The group is one way that Meade High School is trying to address the faltering academic performance among Maryland's black students, particularly boys, which a state education task force recently called a crisis with a "crushing sense of urgency."

Maryland education department data show black youths are the least likely to graduate - 74 percent finish high school, compared with 87 percent of their white peers - and are more likely than their white peers to be in special education, prompting a state task force in December to suggest 18 ways local school systems could address the needs of black students.

"From everything we've seen, African-American males have not progressed near the rates of other groups you look at," said Orlan Johnson, co-chairman of the Task Force on the Education of African-American Males in Maryland and a Maryland Board of Regents member. "Basically, what we saw was the group fell off so dramatically the state felt it was incumbent upon us to turn the tide."

Among the recommendations are single-sex classes, hiring more black male teachers and starting clubs or mentoring programs that create a greater sense of belonging.

The Meade Men's Group was formed in August for students who teachers noticed were missing school, not doing homework and getting into trouble.

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"Some kids are focused, but they don't see the runway to land," Williams said. "We turn on the runway lights for them."

Williams, a behavior intervention specialist at the high school at Fort Meade, spends time with the boys, figures out what is wrong and gives them a reason to care about school again. Sometimes he sits in classrooms, watching them. Sometimes he pulls them aside in the halls for a chat.

"They're not bad kids; they just come from bad situations," said Williams, adding that some students he has worked with come from broken homes with absent or incarcerated parents. Some of them are in and out of juvenile detention facilities and have anger-management problems that lead to recurring fights with peers and authority figures in school.

"My job, in a nutshell, is to find the good in them," Williams said.

For those who need extra attention, he holds the weekly, 40-minute group chat to talk about study skills, careers, how to treat women and how to be responsible fathers in the future.

Similar programs in other counties, including Baltimore and Howard, have produced results.

The 100 Strong Male Role Models program at Woodlawn High in Baltimore County has been a bright light for a school struggling to improve state assessment scores.

Alpha Achievers, a mentorship program, was started 10 years ago at Oakland Mills High in Howard to encourage black male students to become stronger academically and give back to the community.

The group's sponsor, Vincent James, a resource teacher for the gifted and talented program, said members are required to maintain a 3.0 grade-point average and tutor other students, many of whom are black.

Because of its success, Alpha Achievers has been expanded to other schools and includes other minorities.

What goes wrong in traditional middle and high schools for black males has been a nagging conundrum for educators across the country.

"Teachers have low expectations of African-American male students in general and a lot of time, rather than prove the [teacher] wrong, [the students] prove the person right," said Marvin Lynn, an associate professor in the minority and urban education graduate program at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Part of what is going on as well [is that] teachers are at a loss as to how to really facilitate active dialogue between parents and students who are different from each other."

To make the 1,741-student school feel more personal, Meade is offering ninth-grade support programs that send parents biweekly alerts when their children are struggling in school and invite parents in for monthly conferences with teachers and assistant principals.

The program has worked so well keeping freshmen on track that the school is considering expanding it to 10th-graders in the fall.

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