Baltimore Class Tests Theory of Providing ‘Positive Role Model’ for Young Black Boys

By Debra Viadero — February 13, 1991 10 min read

Baltimore--Richard Boynton was at first perplexed to notice that some of the boys in the 3rd-grade class he teaches here seemed to have suddenly taken to sitting on top of tables, with their short legs dangling loosely in the air.

Then it occurred to him: That is the way the teacher himself often sits while the boys are busy working at their desks.

Mr. Boynton soon noticed other signs of imitative behavior in his young pupils. Some would lean the way he leans or walk the way he walks. A few, when appointed to lead the class in a line to the lunchroom, even used the teacher’s own words to get fidgety classmates to fall into line.

“‘All right now, I want to see my line in order,”’ he heard them bark at their classmates.

“Hopefully,” Mr. Boynton said, pausing during a break in the class last month, “I’m setting a good example for them.”

Setting a good example is precisely the point of the unusual experiment being conducted here at Matthew Henson Elementary School. All 27 children in this public-school classroom are boys; all of them, like Mr. Boynton, are black.

Educators at the school placed these pupils in the class because they felt the boys needed the influence of a positive male role model--someone like Mr. Boynton--to keep them from ending up like so many of the young men in this West Baltimore neighborhood who came before them: unemployed, jailed, or dead.

“To learn to do things in a man’s way,” the school’s principal, Leah G. Hasty, said, “you have to learn it from a man.”

Though highly controversial, the notion of separating out black males for special attention in school is not new. The idea has gained greater currency this school year, however, as a growing number of urban school districts have moved to create special academies or schools tailored to black or Hispanic male students.

In one of the most far-reaching of these proposals, the Milwaukee school board last fall announced it would open two full-time schools to cater to the academic and social needs of black males and teach them about their cultural heritage. (See Education Week, Oct. 10, 1990.)

Since then, school officials in New York City, Detroit, and Minneapolis have announced plans to create similar programs. (See Education Week, Jan. 16 and Jan. 23, 1991.)

Though not off-limits to white or female students, such programs are expected to attract an enrollment that is predominantly minority and male.

In each of the cities involved, critics have warned that the programs could foster heightened racial separation in schools.

But proponents, citing a litany of disturbing statistics about the poor health, high unemployment, and low life-expectancy of disproportionate numbers of black men, point out that nothing else seems to have worked so far for many black male students.

“What most people are saying,” said Nelson Onyenwoke, director of the Center for the Study of Black Males at Albany State College in Georgia, “is that it is worth a try.”

A similar sense of frustration has provided the impetus for the all-male class at Matthew Henson Elementary School. But here, in contrast, there have been no complaints from community leaders, according to city school officials.

And while plans for separate schools are mostly still on the drawing board in other places, this school’s small experiment has been in place for more than a year and a half.

Whether the approach is succeeding in academic terms is an open question. The Baltimore district’s research office plans to begin a formal evaluation of the boys’ academic achievement in June.

In the meantime, while Mr. Boynton quietly goes on teaching his class lessons about reading, writing, arithmetic, and life, urban educators around the country are likely to be watching.

One reason there has been little outcry over Mr. Boynton’s class is that Matthew Henson Elementary was already a de facto segregated school. In a system where more than 80 percent of the students are black, the school has a black enrollment of nearly 100 percent.

“All we did was take out the girls,” Ms. Hasty said.

The principal said her decision to group the boys together was prompted by changes she has seen in the neighborhood in her eight years at the school.

At one time, she said, children walking to school in this community would pass by older men carrying lunch pails or waiting at bus stops.

“You might not have known their names, but you knew it was somebody going to make a living,” she observed.

But, after a local steel plant shut down and the drug trade gradually infiltrated the area, the working men seemed to disappear, according to Ms. Hasty. Now, she said, the area is populated primarily with single mothers, elderly people who cannot afford to move away, and young men roughly between the ages of 15 and 20.

“Year after year, I saw conditions worsening,” the principal recalled, “with young, black males whose numbers seemed to be increasing, standing on the corner, appearing to be aimless.”

“With many of their little brothers in our school, we had to do something to put a positive role model in the classroom all day long,” she said.

Ms. Hasty reasoned that the separate class would also give those “little brothers” something more: a chance to be a leader. An educator with more than 33 years’ experience, Ms. Hasty said young boys often miss that opportunity in a mixed-gender classroom because girls mature so much more rapidly.

“Girls just seem to sense that the boards need to be washed or the flowers need to be watered, while the boy is still sitting there waiting to be asked,” she said.

With the tacit approval of the Baltimore City school board, the principal selected the names of students whose academic performance in kindergarten and 1st grade had been less than stellar. Most of the children, like more than 65 percent of the 572 students at Matthew Henson, were also poor enough to qualify for the federal government’s free-lunch program.

Ms. Hasty said several of the students have had a parent murdered, or killed by a drug overdose. Some have a parent in jail. And virtually all of the boys are being raised by women, according to the principal.

Mr. Boynton, who had been teaching at Matthew Henson for about a year then, volunteered to take on the new class.

The lanky Mr. Boynton, 6 feet, 4 inches tall, towers over his young charges. He is a product himself of the city school system, and, as the son of a Merchant Marine seaman, he said he knows how it feels not to have a father around the house.

“I saw the same sort of things happening and not just here, all over,” the 36-year-old teacher said. “I saw it when I was in the military, and I’ve seen it in other schools.”

The teacher tries to make up for what he sees lacking in his students’ lives by spending a little extra time with them on Saturdays. Students who excel on a particular classroom assignment win the privilege of joining their teacher for a weekend basketball game or a trip to Lexington Market, a local complex of eateries and food stands. Most often, however, they visit the local public library, where the librarian has set aside books appropriate for the boys’ reading level.

“We have 100 percent library registration in here,” Mr. Boynton said proudly. As if to prove his point, two boys in the class were observed on a recent visit as they argued over a library book.

He also stops at his students’ homes after school to talk over a discipline problem with a family member or to find out why a child has been falling asleep in class.

Partly as a result of that effort, Mr. Boynton has come to know his students well. He said he is familiar with their strengths, their weaknesses, and the problems they must contend with after the school day ends at 2:30 P.M.

“Sometimes, I feel like I have 28 sons,” the teacher said.

“You see him,” he said, pointing to a boy whose father, according to Mr. Boynton, has been in and out of jail. “He has to act like an 18-year-old at home, but when he comes to class, I expect him to act like an 8-year-old.”

Mr. Boynton demonstrated that familiarity during a recent classroom exercise in cursive writing. He paced around the room, dividing the boys into teams for the contest and offering some individual pre-competition coaching.

Patting one boy on the back, he said: “You could do it if you don’t get careless.”

He pointed to another, “If you take your time and listen to what I say, you could do it.”

To a table of about six boys, he said: “I don’t want to say it because they’ll get a big head, but everybody at this table could do it.”

After demonstrating several times on the blackboard how to write the letter “r,” the teacher paused.

“Let the games begin,” he said. Twenty-seven heads bent intently over their papers. Small fingers curved awkwardly around pencils.

“Mr. Boynton, you could get five big ones off me,” said one boy, referring to the point system for the contest.

“I’m 8 years old, so you’re going to give me eight big ones,” another boy said.

The teacher said the handwriting competition was a deliberate attempt to appeal to the same sense of competition that drives many of the boys to excel in football or basketball. In a class with girls, he noted, some of the students might not be able to--or want to--compete as keenly with their classmates.

But outside of the games and the weekend outings, Mr. Boynton said the class is no different from any other 3rd-grade room in the school--a feature that sets this classroom apart from some other attempts around the country to give black boys an academic boost by separating them. Proposals for separate schools in other cities have typically called for an “Afro-centric” curriculum designed to teach black children more about their culture.

“All these kids are saying,” Mr. Boynton said, “is teach me, discipline me, and love me.”

Along the way, he added, he hopes to instill in the youngsters some sense of direction for their lives.

“In here,” he said, “we’re always talking about respect, responsibility, and self-control.”

For their part, Mr. Boynton’s students said they were happy for now with their single-sex classroom.

“It feels wonderful to be in here,” said one such pupil, Emmitt Watson. “Girls get you in trouble because every time the girl will do something, the teacher gets on your case.”

Another boy in the class, Quantez Garner, added: “The teacher looks at the boy’s work, and the boy don’t got nothing, but the girl is finished.”

Educators here said Quantez, a talkative boy who proudly pointed out to a visitor his perfect spelling paper on the bulletin board, may be one of the class’s success stories. In 1st grade, Mr. Boynton said, the boy came to school an average of two to three days a week. Now, he rarely misses a day and, like many of the boys in the class, begs to be called on in classroom discussions.

Family members of some of the boys in the class said they were at first wary of the classroom arrangement. They feared the boys they cared for were being placed in a special-education program or a class for slow learners.

They were won over, they said, by the boys’ enthusiasm for the arrangement.

“My son has a brother in the 1st grade, and he’s always asking me, ‘Mommy, can I go in Mr. Boynton’s class?”’ said Dornita Harris, whose oldest son, George Adams, is in the all-male class.

But Ms. Harris said she attributes her son’s enthusiasm for the class to the unusual dedication of its teacher and not to the fact that it excludes girls.

“If the child doesn’t like the teacher, then he’s not going to do well,” she said.

It is unclear how long the boys and their teacher will be grouped together, or whether the arrangement will become part of a more formal effort by the Baltimore school system to intervene early in the lives of black male students.

Ms. Hasty, the principal of Matthew Henson Elementary School, said she hoped to keep the group together for at least another year. Eventually, the boys will move into a coed classroom.

A second elementary school in the district launched a similar class in September with 1st-grade boys. Karen Poe, a district spokesman, said that class originally included one white boy, whose family moved for unrelated reasons later in the year.

While formal studies on the academic progress of Mr. Boynton’s students are not yet complete, educators at Matthew Henson said the boys already seemed to have made some progress in their schoolwork. By the end of last year, for example, 20 of the 22 boys who started in the class that year were working at grade level in reading and mathematics, according to Mr. Boynton.

The formal evaluation to be conducted later this year by the district will examine the attendance records, disciplinary problems, and test scores for the class.

But Mr. Boynton said the experiment’s true test was still years away.

“In 10 years, if I run into one of these guys, and he tells me he’s entering college or working, then I’ll know it was worth it,” he said. “There are some in here I’m honestly worried about.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 1991 edition of Education Week as Baltimore Class Tests Theory of Providing ‘Positive Role Model’ for Young Black Boys