Teaching teenagers to live 'Strong'

The Baltimore Sun

Matthew Whitehead and Masih Sultani, both 17, used to skip school. Now the Woodlawn High School students are doing so well in class that both have been accepted at several colleges. Aladdin Johnson, 15, had grown content with low C's but now boasts of nearly earning straight A's.

They are only a few of the examples of how one program has changed the course of some lives at a Baltimore County school with a long history of problems.

Woodlawn's "100 Strong Male Role Models" program is so successful that it has begun attracting national interest, as schools from the Northeast and the Midwest seek advice on how to build a student group that gives young men in struggling schools the tools to thrive.

Students and school leaders from Washington High School in Kansas City, Kan., for example, met with counterparts from Woodlawn High to see how the program works.

"We've got a lot of kids who are on the fence, who have to decide whether they're going to be tough or grow up to do something worthwhile," said Greg Netzer, principal of Washington High School. "We're hoping that the energy the group from Woodlawn has will be something that gets us going in the right direction."

Marshall Bennett, an 18-year-old senior at Woodlawn and a member of the group, points to the school's less-than-stellar image, and adds, "We finally have something positive to share."

Sharing and serving seem to be their specialties. At the beginning of the school year, they sponsored a "Teacher Appreciation" banquet. During Thanksgiving and Christmas, they fed hundreds of families and distributed donated gifts to area children. They mentor students at Windsor Mill Middle School to help them prepare for the transition to high school. They tutor each other and others who need help at school.

During a six-week leadership camp last summer, they painted bathroom stalls at the school, planted a garden at the building's entrance, plastered encouraging posters along the hallways and invested in combination locks for every locker so students could use them for storage.

"We asked ourselves, what can we do to make this look like a school again," said Jermaine Isaac, who is the group's first junior to be chosen president. "We thought people might ruin the garden. But they didn't mess with it. They respected it and didn't touch it."

Created 15 years ago by a former history instructor, the "100 Strong Male Role Models" organization hadn't drawn more than 10 members until last year, when an energetic and infectiously passionate teacher, Dean Scott, became the group's adviser and signed up nearly 40 students.

"I saw it as my duty to set a good example for them," said Scott, who has taught English in the county and Baltimore City for nearly 30 years.

Just a year later, the group has outgrown its name, having expanded to nearly 140 members.

As a sign of solidarity, the group's members don matching black T-shirts emblazoned with their logo every Tuesday, and they wear suits and ties on Thursdays. They stand out in hallways filled with chattering teens, and that's the point.

"Being around these guys with high GPAs and high standards helps put me in the position to want to do better for myself," said Christopher Roary Jr., 17, the group's coordinator. "I'm preparing for more of a college life."

In addition to calls from out-of-state, the group has inspired an all-girl's counterpart that was launched this school year with about 40 members.

Woodlawn High, one of the county's largest high schools with about 2,000 students, has struggled to meet statewide assessment standards and is on a state watch list for schools that have repeatedly failed to show sufficient progress. Last year, an average of eight out of 10 of Woodlawn students failed the state's algebra exam, and two-thirds failed the English test.

About 40 percent of students receive free or reduced-priced meals, which is an indicator of poverty. Meanwhile, violent episodes - including a melee during a 2004 school assembly on anger management - have marred the school's reputation. It has gone through five principals in about a decade.

But on a recent Tuesday afternoon, an unabashed air of pride, self-respect and ambition permeates Room 228 at the school, as one after another, each young man marvels over how far he has come.

"When you see something is working for someone else, you want to know more about it," said Kevin Waith, a 17-year-old senior. Waith was among more than a dozen of the group's members who flew to Chicago last weekend to exchange ideas with administrators and students at Kenwood Academy, which started a similar program two years ago.

New York City's Middle School 584 recently began clamoring for the group to visit. Hartford High School in Connecticut also wants the teens to come its way.

But what really has the guys jumping out of their chairs is the idea of nurturing an organization from the ground up, which is what they plan to do next month when they head to Washington High.

Washington High, a school of about 1,000 students in an economically depressed community, has a lot in common with Woodlawn, said Netzer, the principal there. The school's population is predominantly black (nearly 70 percent), many of its students come from single-family homes or are being raised by extended family, and they struggle to navigate a world filled with peer pressure, drugs and gangs.

When a counselor from his school ran into a colleague from Kenwood Academy at a conference and heard about "100 Strong," Netzer said he knew he needed to learn more. So he took three students to Chicago to meet with the Kenwood and Woodlawn groups. Now, he plans to enlist about 20 students who will work with members from "100 Strong" next month to help establish a similar group there by the fall.

Netzer said that after many years of working with high school students, the young men from "100 Strong" are "as impressive a group as I've ever seen."

Isaac, the group's president, has earned a coveted spot among a group of students from across the country who plan to spend nearly a month this summer exploring China. He beams as he talks about "going national" with the group's first chapter in Kansas City.

Andre Beasley is a bit more philosophical about branching out, as he reflects on what he describes as the wakening of "dormant potential." Having grown up in poverty, Beasley said being able to give to others has instilled a sense of self-worth.

"It gives you a greater sense of what it's like to be a role model," said Beasley, 18, a senior. "When you help people and you realize what you have, you're better able to achieve your own goals."

Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said he is proud, but not surprised, that others want to duplicate the group's success.

"They have produced evidence and reinforced what we believe and have always known about them - they're good kids," Hairston said.

Eric King, a special-education teacher who has taught in Baltimore City and county schools for 25 years, said the success of "100 Strong Male Role Models" is rooted in the nurturing and supportive atmosphere that Scott and the school's principal, Don Weglein, have created.

"The reason this works so well is that the students know we care," King said. "Everyone believes in the organization."

Waith said the group has given him a network of peers who have his best interest at heart. "They give me that extra push I need," he said. "It's more like a brotherhood."

gina.davis@baltsun.com

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