Gentleman's Club teaches students style, respect

The Baltimore Sun

Fifth-grader Mark King, decked out in a white suit, called out to the group of 20 boys lined up, two-by-two in the hallway of Van Bokkelen Elementary School.

"Are we ready?" he shouted, his hands cupped to his mouth.

The boys leaned back in their equally suave suits and pumped their arms up. "We ready!" they called back.

Unconvinced, Mark shouted the question louder.

The boys hollered back three times until Mark was satisfied that he had adequately prepared the Gentleman's Club to perform for that morning's announcements.

The scene repeats itself every Thursday morning for Van Bokkelen's ambassadors of style and manners.

Each week, club members don suits and ties, and sing and perform a skit on good behavior for the announcements, which are televised on closed-circuit TV throughout the school. Then they break off into small groups to do good deeds: handing out Eagle Bucks to students for showing good behavior in class or reading stories to children in younger grades.

George Pritchett, the Severn school's disciplinary intervention specialist, started the club for boys in grades one through five in September to help male students who had disciplinary problems or low self-esteem. He and school social workers mentor the boys and teach them about character, respect and responsibility. They go over ways to resolve differences without fighting.

"It does change the climate," he said.

Sixteen schools in Anne Arundel County have mentoring programs where volunteers try to serve as role models and impart life lessons, said Teresa Tudor, an administrator for the Office of School and Family Partnerships. They include the Divas, which pairs female mentors with eighth-grade girls at Annapolis Middle School.

"We have students from every school who just need adults in their lives," Tudor said.

Since the Gentleman's Club formed, disciplinary referrals at Van Bokkelen have fallen by 42 percent. Much of the drop can be attributed to the club, said assistant principal Amy Field. The club has some of the school's frequent offenders. As of March 27, there were 241 disciplinary referrals compared with 417 at that time last year, she said.

Christine Smith, whose three boys were in the Gentleman's Club until they moved at the end of March, said the group had a positive effect on her sons this year. Her oldest son, Christopher, had gotten a few referrals and a suspension last year for arguing with other boys. This year, the fifth-grader has not gotten any referrals. Some of the boys he argued with are also members of the club.

"Now with them being labeled gentlemen, they try to settle arguments differently," said Smith, who mentioned another reason for her son's cooler head. "It's hard to argue with [the other boys] now [that] they are part of a brotherhood."

Because the students spend less time getting disciplined, they spend more time in the classroom learning. School officials said they hope this will lead to improvements in grades and test scores.

Other initiatives have. Programs, such as the Eagle breakfast club for kids with chronic disciplinary problems, have helped. The school brought up scores high enough last year on its Maryland State Assessments to make adequate yearly progress, a benchmark set by state officials to meet requirements of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The club also has members who need a boost of self-confidence. Shawn Meyer said his son, Jeremy, 10, has improved his schoolwork and has become more willing to participate in activities. Every week, he checks with his dad to make sure that his suit and tie are clean and pressed.

"Jeremy looks forward to it every Thursday," Meyer said. "I think the Gentleman's Club is his outlet to help himself feel better."

It has been a tough year for Jeremy, with his parents going through a divorce. Jeremy said that he used to fall asleep -- or at least pretend to -- in class. He said he doesn't do that anymore, because he knows he has to set an example for the other kids. He likes the attention that he gets when he walks down the hall in his suit. The first-graders listened intently when he read them Mooncake, by Frank Asch.

"It feels great because they look up to me," Jeremy said afterward.

The younger students can't wait for the gentlemen to read to them Thursday mornings, said Sandi Cooper, who teaches first grade.

"A lot of them ask if they can be in the Gentleman's Club, too," she said.

Its success has led to the formation of the Ladies' Club, whose 20 members introduced themselves during the March 27 announcements. Teachers identified girls who could benefit from lessons, said Barbara Fields-May, a reading interventionist at the school.

"What we noticed is that many of our students are very good girls, but they have some confusion about how to best represent themselves," she said. "We want to challenge them to reach higher ideals."

The Ladies' Club, however, will be limited to fourth- and fifth-graders, said Fields-May, who is a co-coordinator of the club. She said some of the issues that the girls are dealing with -- fighting over boys, for instance -- are more tied to puberty. Also, Fields-May thought it would be better to have the club be a perk that the younger girls could aspire to join.

The coordinators want to have the girls do things that are different, but complementary to the Gentleman's Club.

"We are looking at different arenas but still doing things that will develop them," Fields-May said.

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