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Ex-soldiers recruited for duty in classrooms 20 retirees become teachers


Jerry Scherer, a retired army sergeant, is in his first year as a public school teacher in Northwest Baltimore. Thursday, he came close to tears, but not for the reasons you might think.

It wasn't the frustration of trying to teach AIDS and drug abuse prevention to a class of sixth-graders who yelled, slammed doors, threw pens and occasionally punched each other. It was because in a place that fills so many with despair, he continues to see hope.

"It's the idea that people's lives can be changed," he said during a rare quiet moment between classes. The 46-year-old former master sergeant's eyes grew red and welled up with tears. "This course . . . can save lives."

That brand of idealism is one of the qualities that Baltimore school officials saw in Mr. Scherer. Last year, the city hired him and 19 other military retirees to teach in the public schools as part of its new resident teacher program.

The program draws people with no formal training in education and permits them to teach full time. Taking advantage of the peace dividend, it retrains former soldiers while bringing more male role models into the city's public schools, said Ed Brewin, a program consultant. The school system provides two weeks of summer training for the aspiring teachers and assigns mentors to help them through the first year.

Mr. Scherer, however, has learned the most by teaching.

When he was in the Army, an order was an order. At William H. Lemmel Middle School, where he teaches sixth-grade health, education is a battle of wills.

"When that door is shut, who's going to win?" he asked. "Are they going to learn, or are they going to run you?"

Lemmel is a challenging place for Mr. Scherer. He is white. All 1,496 students are black.

Last year, almost 50 percent of the students missed more than 20 days of school. The neighborhood is such that the school's front doors are locked during class.

Mr. Scherer's 26-year career in the Army doesn't seem to faze his students. They test him constantly.

In the middle of a class discussion Thursday, a 12-year-old boy left his seat and pushed a classmate over a desk and onto the floor. Later, Latarsha Uzzell, 11, got up and asked to turn on the television.

When Mr. Scherer handed out a test, an 11-year-old named David wouldn't look at it.

"David!" Mr. Scherer shouted. "Start!"

David just shrugged.

"OK. I'll give you a zero," the teacher said.

"Suits me," David replied.

But health class in Room 318 is not all conflict. When the din subsides, some learning occurs. Though Latarsha gets a kick out of pushing Mr. Scherer's buttons, she is also a good student. In recent tests, she has scored 89, 95 and 100.

Between outbreaks of laughter and conversation, insightful questions surface. While Mr. Scherer explained the differences between prescription and illegal drugs, several students wanted know how the nation's drug problem got started.

"Who invented drugs, anyway?" asked Damon Taylor, 12.

"How did drugs get into America?" wondered Michelle Oliver, 11.

For all the trouble they give him, the children like Mr. Scherer.

"He's one of my favorite teachers," said Darice Wicks, 12. "He teaches me the things I need to know." And "he doesn't raise his voice that much."

It didn't used to be that way. When Mr. Scherer started last year, he yelled at everybody. But instead of reducing the noise, his shouting only increased it.

It was a hard adjustment, but he changed strategies and became more flexible. When students arrive, he gives them a few minutes to settle down. To protect his voice, he projects it as if on stage.

Even the school principal has noticed a difference.

"The noise level is not as great," says Eldon J. Thomas, a supporter of the resident teacher program. "He doesn't seem as frustrated."

Mr. Scherer was not the only teacher who had trouble changing from a military regimen to managing a bunch of rambunctious children. Early on, some teachers became frustrated and manhandled students, Mr. Brewin said.

"That's been dealt with quickly," he said. "Some were asked to leave, and others were disciplined."

Of the 20 teachers who started in September, three had left the program by early March.

Mr. Brewin attributes the high attrition to the usual problems with first-year programs, including improper placements and mistakes in screening.

He says he expects to recruit up to 60 more retired military people to teach next fall.

But when classes begin, Mr. Scherer may not be among them. He wants to work as an administrator in drug and alcohol treatment, the field in which he was trained.

And, as is often the case with education, there is the problem of money. His salary this year is $22,900. He knows he can make more.

Bob Dumas, a former sergeant first class who teaches seventh-grade science on the second floor at Lemmel, plans to stay -- "as long as they'll have me," he said.

Mr. Dumas, 41, moved here from Oklahoma last year and finds the work rewarding. Nursing a finger he thinks he might have broken earlier while breaking up a fight, he relates his most touching experience at Lemmel.

One of his students, Cheri, wrote an essay on role models for another class. She chose him.

In it, Cheri wrote that she admires Mr. Dumas because he respects her and makes her feel like somebody. Mr. Dumas, a thick-necked man with short-cropped hair and a blue, short-sleeved polyester shirt, recited the essay from memory. He began to cry.

"I will always remember these kids," he said. "The only thing I want from them is an invitation to their high school graduation."

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