UNORTHODOX EDUCATOR Holland pushes innovative programs for black students


At one time Spencer Holland looked at the American education system, looked at the high rate of imprisonment among young African American males, looked into the eyes of black children and became so filled with despair that he quit his job in education administration.

He just gave up, he says.

From 1982 until 1985, the man who in June became the director of the Center for Educating African American Males at Morgan State University, who is implementing a program designed to help young blacks in Baltimore schools, who has become something of a national spokesman on the subject of educating young blacks, was something of a dropout.

"I couldn't stand it anymore," he says, and shakes his head as though in disbelief. "I finally threw it all over. I went into computers. No people, no children."

While he worked as a computer consultant, Dr. Holland continued to rail against an education system that he felt didn't work, one that devalued its teachers and failed its students -- in particular, its young black males. "I didn't tell anyone who I was, you see," he says of his computer colleagues. "I would just go on and on. They couldn't figure it out, how did I know this stuff?"

And on the day that Martin Luther King's birthday became a national holiday, the Columbia University graduate's dark mood lifted. "I knew I had gotten all my money, all my scholarships because of people like him," he says. "I thought 'OK, Dr. King. I will go back. I will grit my teeth and I will go back.' "

The mood lifted, he says, but anger remains.

At 51, Dr. Holland, who is unmarried, is a small, dapper man, who has, at first meeting, a deceptively well-modulated voice. He advocates all-male, all-black classes -- as well as entire schools such as those proposed by the Milwaukee school board -- as a solution to the crisis in black male education. And as such, his views are political hot potatoes among both blacks and whites.

As he sits in his book-and-paper-filled office on the Morgan State campus, the mere mention of the educational needs of black boys incenses him: "You are telling me homicide is the No. 1 cause of death for black men?" he shouts, his voice rising two octaves and 10 times as many decibels.

"No! You give me money for our babies, and I will prevent the expansion of the prisons. Pay me now or pay me later! We cannot just build prisons, build prisons. I will stop the carnage this society has begun. Listen to me. List-en-to-me!"

Indeed, as national attention is increasingly focused on the plight of young black men -- nearly 20 percent of all black males drop out of high school, their unemployment rate is more than double that of whites, the leading cause of death for black men aged 15 to 24 is homicide -- people are beginning to listen.

Dr. Holland's programs -- some of which have been deemed discriminatory by education leaders -- and his methods -- some of which have been deemed abrasive even by his friends -- are receiving both more attention and more respect.

Respect, not universal acceptance. Norris Haynes, director of research, school development program, at the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven, says: "I understand the frustration that has led to the Milwaukee-type schools, but I am afraid of the message it will send to black males: that they are so different that they need separate schools. What will happen to their self-perception?

"And I'm afraid of the message sent to those charged with social policy decisions: that we need to separate these men out."

Nonetheless, ever since Dr. Holland appeared on "60 Minutes" in September, his phone has been ringing: morning talk shows, newspaper interviews, calls for advice from other school systems. "I have been telling them for years," he says and grins. "Lis-ten-to-me."

But the road to this respect has been bumpy. In 1987, the Dade County, Fla., public schools implemented an all-male, all-black class taught by a black male based upon Dr. Holland's recommendations. After a year, the program was deemed discriminatory by the Florida Board of Education -- and was disbanded.

The experience left Dr. Holland discouraged but undaunted. In 1988, he created Project 2000, a decade-long, mentoring-style program that provides a Washington public school class of 93 boys and girls with male volunteers who will work with them until their graduation in the year 2000. "Project 2000 is definitely a compromise. I thought, 'I'm not going to stop trying. It is a stopgap until schools will dare to try the solutions [he proposes].' "

His idea is to convince men -- particularly African-American men -- to spend one-half day, once or twice a week helping public school teachers -- in classes of both boys and girls. The project is designed to help boys, but girls won't be ignored, he says. "We're looking for men to help the teachers discipline, and boys respond better to men."

Since accepting the position at Morgan State, he has been tireless in his efforts to implement Project 2000 in Baltimore. Dr. Holland, who commutes from Washington, has combed churches, Masonic Lodges, "anywhere there are men," for volunteers to serve in three locations: Coldstream Park, Robert W. Coleman and George G. Kelson elementary schools.

The Baltimore program is the first attempt to implement Project 2000 on a systemwide basis. "We hope we can replicate the experiences that the boys are having at Robert Coleman and the other schools. Just as we have identified three schools this year, we can try to stagger in more schools each year. That's our vision," says Dolores Winston, director of community mobilization for Baltimore schools.

In Washington, as well as Baltimore, Mr. Holland is known for unflagging determination. "He has a deep commitment. He has seen blacks denied privileges and rights. He has taken it upon himself to help young blacks so that they can compete equally," says Cyril Byron, controller for the Washington Office of Employee Appeals and a member of Concerned Black Men Inc., a national organization that helped implement Project 2000 and has pledged to follow the Washington students through graduation.

"He is quick and has tremendous energy and enthusiasm," says Roger Fish, assistant superintendent for curriculum and educational technology for Washington schools, who supervised Dr. Holland. "He can be very focused in terms of what he wants to do and can be singled-minded in directing his energies toward a project."

However, even his friends admit his single-mindedness may be taken the wrong way: "I'm quite sure Spencer alienated a lot of people by how he presented his ideas," says Mr. Byron, who has known Dr. Holland since 1977. "His presentation is not the softest, he really gets excited. His attitude is, 'How dare you give up on these children?' "

And although Dr. Holland has learned to compromise within his program, his opinions remain a combination of traditional child-rearing wisdom and unconventional views: "I believe in discipline. I'm old-fashioned," he says calmly. But in the next breath, his voice skyrockets again: "White people tend to think that we're dying to mingle with them -- wrong! Don't be grand enough to think I'm dying for my children to be exposed to you!"

Then he hoots and adds: "That's part of what they cut out of '60 Minutes.' "

Stock-in-trade Holland responses to any and all criticism come in a disarming blend of righteous anger and thumb-to-the-nose humor. To those who fear that all-male, all-black classes come too close to a return to segregation, Dr. Holland points out that many inner-city schools are all-black already. "We have segregated classes already. I'll show them to you. They're called 'special ed.' "

To tentative suggestions that he may at times sound racist, he says "I don't teach hatred. I abhor hatred."

Then he warms to his subject: "Integration is not the panacea we thought. How can it [the school system] do any worse than it has already done?

"You scream racism, discrimination, but you have no solutions! That's why I don't listen to critics. . . . The grand 'they' out there. They say this. They say that. They don't have any answers."

And he punctuates that response by blowing a raspberry.

Diatribes are standard behavior for this third child of a Mizpah, N.J., truck driver whose mother "made me go to college" and who describes that academic experience -- on scholarship -- as "going to college like a rich, white boy."

Certainly, as a young high school graduate, Dr. Holland initially found the idea of attending college a novel one. After high school, he fled his small home town to join the U.S. Air Force. His mother, Elizabeth Blackwell, a retired state employee, says, "We never had any idea of furthering his education. When I said, 'Why don't you go to college?' he looked at me like I was crazy. Well, we weren't rich. Who was? I said apply, then we'll figure out how."

In his first semester at Glassboro State College in New Jersey, Dr. Holland earned a 3.2 grade point average, which "blew me away," he says. But it was the beginning of a life dedicated to educating others. His first job was teaching science in Union, N.J. In 1976, he moved to Washington, where he worked in the school system in several capacities including coordinator of the child abuse and neglect staff development project.

He swears he will never again give up hope. "My [inner] spiritual base is too strong for me to be overwhelmed," he says.

And so it seems. At Robert Coleman Elementary, at a training session for volunteers, Dr. Holland's voice rises and falls like a Southern preacher's as he alternately inspires, storms, lectures and begs men to pledge their time.

That the turnout this evening is a disappointing three men doesn't slow him: A black TV cameraman, there to film Dr. Holland, is noticed and drafted.

"I recruit everyone. Everywhere," he says. "I'm not just looking for professional men. My father was a truck driver. I am looking for men, professional, non-professional, retired or not." About 35 Baltimore men have volunteered their time thus far.

"I will not give up. I want to get to the firemen, the policemen, the bus drivers," he says. "You give me a cadre of volunteers, and I will implement this program anywhere. There's a huge vision here: People are talking about the present. I'm talking about the future."


Born: Sept. 11, 1939, Mizpah, N.J. (20 miles west of Atlantic City).

Education: Bachelor of arts, biology, Glassboro State College in New Jersey, 1965. Master of arts degree, Columbia University, 1968. Doctorate, educational psychology, Columbia University, 1976 (first black to receive this degree from Columbia).

Favorite author (at this moment): Eric Van Lustbader, of the "Ninja" books.

Hobby: "Resting. I have a remarkable capacity to do nothing."

What do you do while you're commuting from Washington to Baltimore? "Think. Create. I have a pad on the seat next to me and I put the car on cruise control."

What would you most like to be? A fiction writer.

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