Men who've walked the road

The Baltimore Sun

It's 2 p.m. at Garrison Middle School in Northwest Baltimore. In a second-floor hallway, Ronald Covington has stopped in his tracks. "Listen to that," he says. He smiles and raises his arms.

Silence.

Covington and four other men from BUILD, a faith-based nonprofit organization, have worked all school year to keep Garrison quiet and orderly. Acting partly as hall monitors and partly as fathers, the men have helped to cut the number of violent incidents at the school and to increase student attendance.

Called High Expectations, the program is in its first year and is only at Garrison, though there's a partial version at Westport Academy in Southwest Baltimore.

Garrison Principal Isiah Hemphill devoted $125,000 of his budget to it, and BUILD and the school system paid the rest, another $125,000. Officials with BUILD, which stands for Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, say they would like to spread High Expectations to other middle schools.

They'll hold a rally this evening in Northeast Baltimore to protest any city or state budget cuts to education and youth programs like the ones they run.

Fighting is a daily problem at many city public schools, though only the highest-profile attacks are publicized.

Last spring, a girl at Reginald F. Lewis High School beat an art teacher as another student filmed the attack with a cell phone camera and posted it to her MySpace Web page. Last month, a 15-year-old student at William H. Lemmel Middle School in West Baltimore was stabbed to death on school grounds during class time. Another student has been charged with his murder.

BUILD proposed the idea of stationing men in school buildings last spring and launched seven-week pilot programs at Lemmel and Garrison. Lemmel chose not to continue the program this year because of the cost.

Garrison has been one of the city's toughest middle schools - with low academic achievement, high rates of truancy and serious behavioral problems. The school serves about 500 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students, many from group homes and violence-ridden neighborhoods. Last fall, Ty'wonde Jones, 13, was stabbed to death and found in a Park Heights alley. A week earlier, the seventh-grader had been suspended from Garrison for fighting.

"A lot of the struggles that we see behaviorally in school start in the community," says Hemphill.

The principal says he wanted the men at his school because they offer something that his staff often cannot: time. Dozens of students, primarily boys, turn to the men for advice and intervention. The men, full-time BUILD employees, arrive at school before the students and leave after them. They sometimes work evenings and weekends, taking the kids to restaurants and museums, talking to relatives, helping with homework.

"We look like them, and we talk like them," says Covington, who oversees the Garrison and Westport programs. "But we're modeling something positive that they don't see in their communities."

Garrison's attendance is at 96 percent this year, compared with 94 percent last year, according to school officials. Suspensions have fallen, from 25 in the first two months of last school year to 21 in the first two months of this school year. Last year, the school reported seven attacks on staff members; this year, there have been none. Student-on-student attacks have dropped, from eight last year to two so far this year. Principal Hemphill attributes the changing school culture to the work of the BUILD men.

"They have made a big difference," he says. "The environment is different. Students are in the classrooms much more. There are less behavioral challenges. They're just less angry."

The men get buy-in from the kids because they have their own stories of struggle.

"When I look at these young people," says Ted Sutton, 41, "I see myself in the same place at their age."

As a young man, Sutton - known as "Crazy Ted" - was dealing drugs and watching his friends get locked up for life or killed. In the mid-1990s, he decided he'd had enough and set about turning his life around. He founded an intervention group home called Sutton House, which targeted young men trying to get out of gang life. He earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from Coppin State University and works full time with young men.

Sutton and the others use Room 109, a couple of steps from the cafeteria, as their home base. They have a "target group" of the 10 highest-risk boys in the school, but they open their door to anyone who needs help. Students knock throughout the day, some who come on their own and others who have misbehaved in class and are sent there by teachers.

Every day at lunch, a dozen or so students gather in Room 109 for a group discussion. On Monday, Sutton led the talk, with an audience of eighth-graders munching on chicken nuggets and pizza. He posed a question: "How long can you look at another black man? Two seconds? Ten seconds? What's the longest you can look at him without causing a beef?" He asked the kids to role-play situations where eye contact could escalate into a fight.

The kids acted out how to place an order in a sub shop without angering a group that controls the site. "What if the group is armed?" Sutton asked. The students laughed and jumped around in mock pain as they acted out a gunfight. Sutton quieted them down with this: "This is serious to me. I watched my best friend get gunned down on Preston and Bond. I had to hold his brains in until the paramedics arrived. I've been to enough funerals. I don't want to go to anyone's in here."

The boys, more subdued now, prepared for their afternoon classes. Bobby Harper arrived to help them navigate their way. As the hallways fill between periods, the men are there, high-fiving students, pulling boys apart, quieting riotous girls.

"I feel like a trouble-shooter sometimes," says Harper, 51. "But that's OK. Wherever I'm needed." Above him was a city school police sign: "No weapons of any kind by order of BCPSS."

Harper announced, to no one in particular: "Let's clear the hallways. Keep moving, keep moving. Let's go."

Moments later, after class began, a language arts teacher popped into the hallway. "Bobby, can you help me remove a student from my classroom?" It was an eighth-grader, one of the target students, a boy prone to flashing gang signs.

After turning the student over to Sutton for a time-out in Room 109, Harper says the boy has been difficult to reach. "He's just so caught up in the streets. He's trying, but it's like there are two people on his shoulders. Once he leaves school, he has a whole 'nother world he is into."

Harper grew up in Murphy Homes, so he says he knows the temptation of gang life. But he had his own mentor, a man who taught him to play basketball. Harper coaches children and says he lives by the mantra, "Through sports, you can get a kid's attention."

The youngest Garrison mentor, Shawn Waller, 28, also is a coach. He lives in Park Heights and coaches football and basketball at Forest Park High School. Toward the end of the day, Kensey King, 14, arrived at Room 109 to work on reading skills. Waller made him a cup of tea. The two are close, and on this afternoon, Kensey wanted to join Waller at Forest Park.

School let out at 2:30 p.m., and the three men were ready. (Bryant Claibourne, the fourth Garrison team member, was at training on Monday.)

Harper, who also organizes the school's evening program, would stay three more hours to teach kids how to cook, play music and shoot hoops. Waller and Kensey were off to Forest Park. Sutton stood outside in the cold, directing students in the manner of an air traffic controller. Down the street, three police officers sat in their cars, ready to break up any trouble.

But on this day, there was none.

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