All-male, all-black, all learning


Politics and personalities aside, the rationale for tomorrow's Million Man March in Washington takes human shape in a second-floor public school classroom in West Baltimore.

Richard J. Boynton stands before 29 African-American boys at Matthew A. Henson Elementary School. Since 1989, he's been teacher and role model to hundreds of students at Henson, Baltimore's pioneer in separate classes for black boys.

The fifth-graders today are discussing their personal time-lines -- their maps of hopes and dreams. One by one, they come forward, tape their written plans to the blackboard and, required to speak in complete sentences, transport themselves well into the 21st century.

Three boys in a row intend to get rich in professional sports, then buy expensive cars and houses.

Marriage and children for these 10-year-olds will come after the cars and houses.

"I was born in 1985," says one. "I plan on going to college after I graduate from high school in 2002. In 2005 I plan to become a basketball star. Then I'll get a car and a house, and then a wife."

There is no tittering among these boys; no girls are around to mess things up. The boys can talk sports, talk marriage, be a team.

"And then in 2025, I'll be finished with my basketball career." End of time-line. (Only one of the boys projects his death -- in 2090, he says.)

Mr. Boynton, 41, tells the boys he hasn't heard anything about graduating from college. "What if I gave you the choice between a million dollars and graduating from college?"

There is excited conversation as the lanky teacher paces among the clusters of desks. Finally one of the students says the magic words: "The more education you get, the more money you make."

"Bingo!" says the teacher.

It's like this most days at Henson, Mr. Boynton says later. "I'm like a surrogate father to some of them. I've done surveys of my classes, and never more than a third of a class comes from a family with a traditional mother and father. These all-boy classes were started because the community here saw a need for male role models. The only models many of them see are athletes and entertainers, and then there are the negative models of deadbeats and drug addicts."

There's another reason for all-male classes, says Leah G. Hasty, the retired Henson principal who started the all-male classes in 1987 and became something of a national media star in the early years of the experiment. "It's to show the boys that it's OK to be smart. It's so frustrating to hear these boys' peers chastise them for excelling academically."

In outlining his time-line, Marlon White, 10, ignores the crowning academic achievement of his young life -- taking second place in a citywide mathematics tournament last year -- and he says he wants to be a construction worker, of all things, in 2007.

So the class achiever wants to be a construction worker, not another Michael Jordan. Mr. Boynton will have none of it. "What did Marlon leave out?" he demands. "Whisper it to me." One by one the boys whisper the answer to their teacher, and then Marlon is praised to the hilt. "Not only did he finish second," says Mr. Boynton. "I believe he finished second to a sixth-grader! There's nothing wrong with being smart. You can be smart and have fast cars and lots of money."

Henson is one of about half a dozen Baltimore schools with planned single-gender classes. Several other urban school systems have them, too, but the idea isn't sweeping the nation.

In Detroit, a judge declared all-male academies unconstitutional after the National Organization for Women took the district to court. The federal Department of Education killed an experiment in Miami, saying it amounted to gender discrimination. And Philadelphia school officials canceled a single-sex program that seemed to be paying off in higher school grades and improved attendance after the American Civil Liberties Union complained.

Baltimore, with its long history of single-sex education -- Western High School has been an all-girl school s ince 1844 -- has no official policy on the matter. In fact, North Avenue doesn't know how many single-sex classrooms there are, and no one has ever formally evaluated the experiment, though Ms. Hasty says she asked for an evaluation.

Black male education in Baltimore also has gotten a boost from men's organizations such as the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, which happens to be in the same block a s Henson Elementary.

The fraternity, which counts Superintendent Walter G. Amprey and former school board member James M. Griffin as members, now has a voluntary presence in 17 schools.

A number of the Omega Psi Phi members will be in the march tomorrow. So will Richard Boynton. "I fully support the idea," he says, "but I'm afraid a lot of men who need to be there won't show up."

Leah Hasty hopes mother will attend dinner

Leah Hasty, the retired principal at Henson Elementary, will be honored at a dinner Wednesday at Martin's West. She hopes her mother can make it. At 104, Sarah Ida Goldsborough still goes twice a week to a senior center in Easton and reads Scriptures daily, Ms. Hasty said.

Ms. Hasty grew up in Easton, where her parents were butler and driver, baby sitter and maid for the parents of Maryland's visionary developer James W. Rouse.

"We would get up in the morning, go to our segregated schools, then come home and play together," said Ms. Hasty, who worked in city schools for 38 years.

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