Father Figure

April 01, 1991 6 min read
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Setting a good example is precisely the point of the unusual experiment being conducted at Matthew Henson Elementary School. All 27 children in this public school classroom are boys; all of them, like 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 Boynton--to keep them from ending up like so many of the young men in this West Baltimore neighborhood: unemployed, jailed, or dead.

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

Although 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. Since then, school officials in New York City, Detroit, and Minneapolis have announced similar projects. 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 poor health, high unemployment, and low life-expectancy among black men, point out that nothing else seems to have worked so far for many black male students.

“What most people are saying,’' says 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 Henson Elementary. But here, in contrast, there have been no complaints from members of the community. 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 district’s research office plans to begin a formal evaluation of the boys’ academic achievement in June. In the meantime, while Boynton quietly teaches his boys, urban educators around the country will be watching.

One reason there has been little outcry over Boynton’s class is that Henson was already a de facto segregated school; it is nearly 100 percent black. “All we did was take out the girls,’' Hasty says.

The principal says 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, children walking to school 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 explains.

But, after a local steel plant shut down and the drug trade gradually moved in to the area, the working men seemed to disappear. “Year after year, I saw conditions worsening,’' the principal recalls, “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.’'

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 of experience, Hasty says 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 says.

With the tacit approval of the Baltimore 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 were poor. Several have had a parent murdered, killed by a drug overdose, or jailed. And virtually all of the boys are being raised by women.

Boynton, who had been teaching at Matthew Henson for about a year, volunteered to take on the new class. A lanky 6 feet 4 inches tall, Boynton towers over his young charges. As the son of a merchant marine seaman, he knows how it feels not to have a father around.

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 a local complex of eateries. Most often, however, they visit the public library.

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. “Sometimes, I feel like I have 28 sons,’' he says.

This familiarity is apparent during a classroom exercise in cursive writing. Boynton paces around the room, dividing the boys into teams for a contest and offering some individual pre-competition coaching. Patting one boy on the back, the teacher says, “You could do it if you don’t get careless.’' To a table of about six boys, he says: “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 pauses. “Let the games begin,’' he says. Twenty-seven heads bend intently over their papers.

The handwriting competition is 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, Boynton notes, 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, Boynton says 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 “Afrocentric’’ curriculum designed to teach black children more about their culture.

“All these kids are saying,’' Boynton says, “is ‘Teach me, discipline me, and love me.’ '' Along the way, he adds, he hopes to instill in the youngsters some sense of direction for their lives. “In here,’' he says, “we’re always talking about respect, responsibility, and self-control.’'

For their part, Boynton’s students say they are happy with their singlesex classroom. “It feels wonderful to be in here,’' one student, Emmitt Watson, says. “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, adds: “The teacher looks at the boy’s work, and the boy don’t got nothing, but the girl is finished.’'

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. Principal Hasty says she hopes to keep the group together for at least another year.

Educators at Henson say the boys already seemed to have made some progress in their schoolwork. By the end of last school year, for example, 20 of the 22 boys who started in the class that year were working at grade level in reading and mathematics. But Boynton says the experiment’s true test is still years away.

“In 10 years,’' he says, “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. There are some in here I’m honestly worried about.’'

Debra Viadero, Education Week

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as Father Figure

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