- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2008

Russell Davis and Karim Kambo, both 9-year-olds, have a life coach of sorts who comes to their school, Seabrook Elementary in Lanham, at least twice a week.

“He inspires me. I have a role model who can help me with my homework assignments,” Russell says in a polite, quiet voice, his hands resting on his health and fitness workbook.

“He” is Will Trice, a retired investigator and mentor volunteer with new African American Male Achievement Program at the Maryland Institute for Minority Achievement and Urban Education (MIMAUE) at the University of Maryland’s College of Education.

The program is aimed at closing the achievement gap between minority and white students. According to the institute, black males have Maryland’s lowest high school graduation rate at 73 percent.

“We talk about sports, and what I want to be when I grow up,” Russell says.

And what is that?

“A football player,” he says with enthusiasm. Karim wants to be a professional basketball player.

Mr. Trice and the boys are sitting in a teachers lounge on a recent afternoon, but sometimes during mentoring sessions, the trio sit smack in the middle of the boys’ classroom.

“The idea is that I can be an outside role model for other kids, too, even when I’m working more closely with Karim and Russell,” Mr. Trice says.

Mr. Trice represents something sorely lacking in the lives of many black children, says MIMAUE Executive Director Stephanie Timmons Brown.

Black men.

“African-American boys respond better to African-American males,” Ms. Timmons Brown says. “African-American male teachers and mentors can relate to African-American boys better; they can discipline them better, they get through better.”

However, teaching is not traditionally a male profession among blacks, she says, so it’s very difficult to attract black men to teaching.

“It’s really a challenge that needs to be addressed,” she says.

In the meantime, mentors are a start. The MIMAUE program features a dozen Prince George’s County students and about as many volunteers, including Mr. Trice, who says he can relate to the boys’ dreams of becoming sports stars and thinks they should be encouraged.

“I want you to dream big. I want you to become a professional football player. But what if that doesn’t happen. What are you going to do?” Mr. Trice asks.

“Then I’m going to be a lawyer,” Russell says.

“That’s good. You need a backup plan,” Mr. Trice says. “Use your ability in sports to get you into college.”

From there they go on to reading out loud from the workbook about how to make 911 calls; what to say and do to stay safe in an emergency.

“So what do you need to do?” Mr. Trice asks.

“You need to speak clearly,” says Karim about making the call to a 911 operator.

And so it goes. The boys and their “life coach” go through the homework assignment and talk about the future and about sports.

Other times they devote their sessions to black history, which is one of the pillars of this MIMAUE mentoring program.

“We know that giving the boys a sense of pride and a sense of where they come from is very important,” Ms. Timmons Brown says.

Part of knowing your heritage, she says, is learning about black historical figures who have made a difference, whether they’re in politics — Frederick Douglass — or the arts — Alvin Ailey.

The boys and their mentors also talk about manners — look a person in the eye and stand up when you shake his hand — and the importance of focus and concentration.

Mr. Trice talks in a calming voice and never cuts the boys off, even when they stumble on their words and take an excruciatingly long time to make a point.

“I need to be a good listener,” he says. “I need to be a person they can open up to and talk about things they may not want to share with their parents.”

The mentoring program is in its first year, and Ms. Timmons Brown is starting to compile and analyze data from mentors and teachers. So far, the most noticeable changes are in the boys’ behavior.

“We’ve seen a growth in focus and attention span,” she says.

The mentoring program also includes teacher training. Research shows that students respond best to culturally sensitive pedagogy — in other words, teaching methods and context to which they can relate.

“You have to take a personal interest in the students. You have to know something about their lives,” says Martin Johnson, MIMAUE’s founder and an education professor at the University of Maryland. “Then you can start tailoring your lesson to include their experiences.”

In a math lesson, this might mean asking teens what they shopped for during the weekend, what it cost, if they had any savings, how much they spent of their earned money, etc.

“Really, everything can be mathematized,” Mr. Johnson says.

The program also includes workshops for parents to learn how they can stay better connected to their children’s education.

The findings so far from the one-year pilot program are encouraging, but where does it go from here?

“That’s the challenge,” Ms. Timmons Brown says. “I wish we had at least a mentor for every school. … In the end, you hope that it starts taking on a life of its own.”

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