Black Mentors Extend a Hand

Volunteers provide male role models for elementary-age boys in Project 2000 school program

SIMON WAINWRIGHT is a tall, soft-spoken man well past fitting comfortably in a child-size chair. But on a recent snowy morning here at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School in west Baltimore, he squeezed into a seat made for first-graders and helped a group of neophyte readers sound out words. Mr. Wainwright makes his living working the swing shift as a correctional officer at a state prison. But he volunteers his time here because he doesn't want to meet the pint-size pupils of today in jail tomorrow.

``A lack of education has a lot to do with people being incarcerated,'' he says.

Wainwright, who lives in this drug-plagued, inner-city neighborhood of neat row houses, is well aware of the ominous statistics facing young black men in the United States today.

He knows, for example, that more college-age black men are in prison or on parole today than are enrolled in college. Homicide is the leading cause of death among black males 15 to 24 years old. African-American men as a group have high dropout and unemployment rates.

``All these things indicate that young black men are not learning to socialize properly,'' Wainwright says.

As part of a community service program called Project 2000, Wainwright and other successful black men are serving as role models in elementary schools.

About 70 percent of the students here live in single-parent families headed by women, according to Addie E. Johnson, school principal. Many students do not know or see their fathers. Some live with grandmothers.

Although the school boasts five male teachers - more than most elementary schools - women far outnumber men on the staff.

Throughout the US, there is a shortage of male teachers - particularly black males. Project 2000 is an effort to bring successful black men into elementary schools as volunteer teaching assistants.

Started in 1988 under the auspices of Concerned Black Men, a Washington community service organization, Project 2000 now operates in schools in Washington, Baltimore, and Miami. In addition, programs are being set up in St. Louis, Paterson, N.J., and New Brunswick, N.J.

The flagship class at Stanton Elementary School in southeast Washington, now in third grade, will be followed all the way to high school graduation in the year 2000. Then, like other mentor programs sprouting up around the US, Concerned Black Men promises to provide funding for the post-secondary training each graduating student chooses.

``We are going to stay in these schools for the whole decade of the '90s,'' says Spencer H. Holland, creator of the project and director of the Center for Educating African-American Males at Morgan State University here.

Describing Project 2000 as a ``dropout prevention program,'' Dr. Holland cites research showing that children who drop out of school - no matter what their age - made up their mind by the end of fourth grade. ``If we don't impact them early,'' he says, ``we will be putting together remediation programs forever.''

Project 2000's main objective, Holland says, is to make sure that young black males stay on track academically. ``But,'' he says, ``the other objective is to show that African-American men particularly - but men in general - can be nurturing human beings.''

Although the program targets black males, white and female students are not ignored. ``These boys need our attention more because they don't know men like us,'' Holland says.

The inner-city male environment is a very macho place, he points out. ``If we don't show these boys that there is an alternative to the kind of man that generally peoples their home or nonschool environment, how will they ever know to be anything else?''

Project 2000 aims to inspire black male students to get a good education and reject the role models of the street or troubled home: drug dealers, alcoholics, abusive parents.

``Little children need to touch their role models,'' Holland says. ``They don't have the abstract ability to see positive male role models on television and then understand that they can be like that too. Jesse Jackson means very little to a seven-year-old black boy. Bill Cosby is fantasyland.''

Before going into the schools, volunteer mentors must attend a three-hour training workshop led by teachers. Once they join, the men are required to spend at least half a day each week with their class.

Many Project 2000 volunteers are professional men who control their own work schedule. But increasingly, a more diverse group of workers are arranging time off - sometimes with pay - so that they can join the program.

The range of volunteers includes lawyers, firemen, college professors, businessmen, government workers, train engineers, college students, phone repairmen, and architects.

``We want to give these children an understanding that there are a wide variety of occupations that you can go into. But all of them require high school graduation,'' Holland says.

When they visit, the volunteers may provide one-on-one help to struggling students, join their classes in the cafeteria for lunchtime conversation, tell the youngsters about their work, or monitor hallways. They continually remind students - especially the boys - of the importance of doing well in school.

``Leading by example has always been the most potent form of teaching devised by man,'' Holland says.

Lamont Harrell, a first-grader at Coleman, says he likes the three men who come to visit his class each week. Classmate James Peace says, ``They give us stuff and take us places.''

Around the holidays, the visitors brought candy canes and other treats, explains James's teacher. And one of their mentors, who works for Amtrak, took this class on a train ride to Washington. James, who says he wants to be a fireman when he grows up, has asked the fireman who comes to his class each week if he can have a tour of the fire station.

But, for the most part, the mentors confine their contact with the students to the school. ``I want these children to connect these men and academics in their minds,'' Holland says.

Since the arrival of the 14 Project 2000 volunteers last September, student conduct has improved dramatically at Coleman, says Principal Johnson. ``I've only had to send one student home,'' she says. Last year, 12 students were removed from school because of discipline problems.

Attendance has also improved at schools with Project 2000 programs. ``Here are all of these men who keep coming in just to help them,'' Holland says. ``It makes them feel special. Little children should feel special.''

These men have clout in the students' eyes. ``They make sure that the boys are staying on task,'' says Carter Bayton, who teaches first grade here. ``It gives [the students] a chance to hear from someone else the importance of an education.''

For Simon Wainwright, spending time keeping kids in school and out of jail is a necessity. He used to work with adolescents, he says, but soon found that they had already turned against school. So, Wainwright says, ``I decided we've got to `head 'em off at the pass.'''

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