It's 2 p.m. at Garrison Middle School in Northwest Baltimore. In a second-floor hallway, Ronald Covington has stopped in his tracks. "Listen to that," he says. He smiles and raises his arms.
Covington and four other men from BUILD, a faith-based nonprofit organization, have worked all school year to keep Garrison quiet and orderly. Acting partly as hall monitors and partly as fathers, the men have helped to cut the number of violent incidents at the school and to increase student attendance.
Called High Expectations, the program is in its first year and is only at Garrison, though there's a partial version at Westport Academy in Southwest Baltimore.
Garrison Principal Isiah Hemphill devoted $125,000 of his budget to it, and BUILD and the school system paid the rest, another $125,000. Officials with BUILD, which stands for Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, say they would like to spread High Expectations to other middle schools.
They'll hold a rally this evening in Northeast Baltimore to protest any city or state budget cuts to education and youth programs like the ones they run.
Fighting is a daily problem at many city public schools, though only the highest-profile attacks are publicized.
Last spring, a girl at Reginald F. Lewis High School beat an art teacher as another student filmed the attack with a cell phone camera and posted it to her MySpace Web page. Last month, a 15-year-old student at William H. Lemmel Middle School in West Baltimore was stabbed to death on school grounds during class time. Another student has been charged with his murder.
BUILD proposed the idea of stationing men in school buildings last spring and launched seven-week pilot programs at Lemmel and Garrison. Lemmel chose not to continue the program this year because of the cost.
Garrison has been one of the city's toughest middle schools - with low academic achievement, high rates of truancy and serious behavioral problems. The school serves about 500 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students, many from group homes and violence-ridden neighborhoods. Last fall, Ty'wonde Jones, 13, was stabbed to death and found in a Park Heights alley. A week earlier, the seventh-grader had been suspended from Garrison for fighting.
"A lot of the struggles that we see behaviorally in school start in the community," says Hemphill.
The principal says he wanted the men at his school because they offer something that his staff often cannot: time. Dozens of students, primarily boys, turn to the men for advice and intervention. The men, full-time BUILD employees, arrive at school before the students and leave after them. They sometimes work evenings and weekends, taking the kids to restaurants and museums, talking to relatives, helping with homework.
"We look like them, and we talk like them," says Covington, who oversees the Garrison and Westport programs. "But we're modeling something positive that they don't see in their communities."
Garrison's attendance is at 96 percent this year, compared with 94 percent last year, according to school officials. Suspensions have fallen, from 25 in the first two months of last school year to 21 in the first two months of this school year. Last year, the school reported seven attacks on staff members; this year, there have been none. Student-on-student attacks have dropped, from eight last year to two so far this year. Principal Hemphill attributes the changing school culture to the work of the BUILD men.
"They have made a big difference," he says. "The environment is different. Students are in the classrooms much more. There are less behavioral challenges. They're just less angry."
The men get buy-in from the kids because they have their own stories of struggle.
"When I look at these young people," says Ted Sutton, 41, "I see myself in the same place at their age."
As a young man, Sutton - known as "Crazy Ted" - was dealing drugs and watching his friends get locked up for life or killed. In the mid-1990s, he decided he'd had enough and set about turning his life around. He founded an intervention group home called Sutton House, which targeted young men trying to get out of gang life. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from Coppin State University and works full time with young men.
Sutton and the others use Room 109, a couple of steps from the cafeteria, as their home base. They have a "target group" of the 10 highest-risk boys in the school, but they open their door to anyone who needs help. Students knock throughout the day, some who come on their own and others who have misbehaved in class and are sent there by teachers.