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Helping kids score in class


In their weekly hour together, Melvin Presco and Mike Keller play basketball and video games and talk about their plans for the weekend.

Melvin, 11 and in fifth grade, looks forward to this time. He likes to tell "Mr. Mike" about how well he's doing in school.

Keller, 22, is one of eight student-athletes at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County who serve as mentors for Hillcrest Elementary pupils diagnosed as emotionally disturbed.

Officials at the Catonsville school credit the mentorship program with drastic improvements in children's behavior.

The school will host a holiday party tomorrow to thank the mentors and others who work with emotionally disturbed pupils in special-education classes, including a Catonsville High School student who helps the children board their buses in the afternoons, and to show public officials the progress they are making.

Lisa Gambino, UMBC's community outreach coordinator for athletics, and Leatrice Howard, an aide in Hillcrest's special-education classes, initiated the first-year mentoring program. The women know each other because their children attended Hillcrest together. All but two of the 10 children who spend all day in Hillcrest's classes for emotionally disturbed pupils are boys. The school has a majority female staff, and Howard recognized their need for positive male role models.

Howard said they have found one in Keller, a UMBC senior, sociology major, baseball player -- and Hillcrest alumnus. He recently volunteered to mentor Melvin in addition to another boy. Howard said Keller is the only mentor who hasn't missed a single appointment since the beginning of the school year.

During Keller and Melvin's second meeting, they sit together as Melvin writes in his journal and completes a spelling quiz.

Then they head to an empty classroom, where Melvin eats a bagel with cream cheese. They chat about the coming winter break, Sony PlayStation and when Melvin will be attending a UMBC game.

Using a small yellow-and-red ball and a miniature white hoop perched atop a storage closet, they play a little basketball of their own.

"How's your math coming?" Keller asks as they wait for a video game to load.

Melvin reports that the class is working on subtracting with decimals, and he's gotten a 90, 96 and 100 on recent tests.

"That's awesome," Keller replies.

After answering Keller's questions, the tables turn.

"So, what did you do today?" Melvin asks Keller.

"Woke up," Keller replies.

It's 9:30 a.m. Melvin has been up since 6:30 in the morning.

They play two rounds of video games, each of them winning once. Melvin wants Keller to stay while his class makes funnel cake that afternoon, but Keller has to be in a class of his own.

Children must exhibit good behavior to leave class with their mentors, and Melvin is working his way up the ranks of a behavior chart.

After 35 consecutive school days of good behavior, Melvin will earn "gold" status, meaning he will be allowed to walk in the halls by himself, be eligible to join band or chorus, and begin to spend time in regular classes.

"I'm doing better," he says with a smile, shortly before Keller's 10:15 a.m. departure. "Five days till I'm on gold."

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