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PRAISE for Middle School Boys

PRAISE for Middle School Boys
By Joyce Heid

“There’s a crisis in our classrooms. In virtually every school district across America, African American children achieve at lower levels, earn lousier test scores, are placed more frequently into special education or remedial and less challenging classes, and are discouraged from striving to excel academically, or demanding excellence from themselves.”
—Achievement Matters, Getting Your Child the Best Education Possible, by Hugh B. Price, president of the National Urban League (K Hardcover, 2002).

According to the Maryland State Department of Education, in 2006 13.2 percent of 9th through 12th grade male African American students dropped out of school, higher than any other demographic surveyed—an alarming statistic that looks tame when compared to the fact that in 2006 the graduation rate for African American males in Baltimore City was only 52 percent. Fortunately, for some of the young men in our community, there are people dedicated to changing that.
LaMarr Darnell Shields and David Miller saw young lives being wasted and decided to do something.
According to Shields, steering their path were the words of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, known as the “Father of Black History” and the founder of Negro History Week, precursor to Black History Month: “When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his “proper place” and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.”
Shields elaborates, “…Understanding the words of Dr. Carter G. Woodson, I was just sick and tired of African-American boys being expelled, suspended, dropping and losing the educational battle. So I, along with David Miller [the Chief Visionary Officer of the Urban Leadership Institute] decided to create an environment that was conducive to the learning styles of African-American boys. We removed the barriers—like girls, lead in the water, safety issues, unsafe buildings—and put them in an environment full of love and hope.”
What Shields and Miller did was create a Saturday school, the Paul Robeson Academic International School of Excellence (PRAISE). The Academy is named after the actor and civil rights activist Paul Robeson, who believed in academic achievement and equality for all. The Academy opened its doors in 2005.
It was Shield’s experience as a teacher at both Baltimore City College High School and the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University that taught him change was needed. As he describes, it was in those schools, “…where I first discovered that teachers were not really equipped to teach, let alone deal with the issues germane to African American males.”

Located on the University of Baltimore campus, the PRAISE program is administered by the Urban Leadership Institute, which according to its website, is “a social enterprise designed to improve the life chances of children, youth and families.” The Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation provided the initial start-up funding, which is now being managed by the Associated Black Charities.
The underlying purpose of PRAISE is to help ensure that the young men in the Academy lead productive lives and successfully transition to high school. As described in the school philosophy, there are three pillars each student is expected to follow:
• Leadership: to give scholars the tools and opportunities to advocate for changes within their communities.
• Scholarship: to empower scholars to take a proactive role in education.
• Integrity: to encourage scholars to adhere to a strict moral or ethical code.
As a Saturday school, students attend class from 9am to 2pm. All of the teachers are professional educators. The Academy is not meant to replace traditional education, but to enhance it. Through a diverse curriculum and enthusiastic leadership, PRAISE’s goal is to prevent the 40 young men to be enrolled in the program in the coming year from becoming just another statistic. Students are graded not only on their performance at PRAISE, but also on their behavior at home. Each week the students’ parents grade their children on their performance in the house—did they do their chores, were they courteous to their family, etc.
The incoming 40 students will comprise two classes in which the students will study math, English, visual arts and Spanish, along with other classes they would not normally see Monday through Friday. These include tai chi and yoga and classes dubbed Entrepreneurial Institute and the Dare to be King Model.
Rosyln Speed has seen her grandson Neko come out of his shell thanks to PRAISE. “PRAISE has helped Neko to become more self confident, vocal, and less shy,” Speed observes.
She continues, “According to Scott [Scott Johnson, Director of PRAISE], Neko already had these skills, but they were not as evident as they are now. He has a better sense of what is expected of him and what he can expect from society and even life.”

Getting a child excited about school Monday through Friday can sometimes be challenging enough, much less on a Saturday morning. But there is no lack of enthusiasm from PRAISE students. Mary Williams initially enrolled her son George in the program because she was looking for something for him to do during the summer to stay busy academically. “I was excited because it was an opportunity for him to participate in a program that focused on the needs of young men, particularly African American young men,” says Williams.
It did not take long for George to be as excited as she was. “At first he didn’t want to go,” she remembers, “but after a while he started getting up before me and wanted to go because he was having so much fun.”
Beyond the students, PRAISE reaches out to their families as well. Understanding that a child’s first teachers are his parents, the PRAISE Parent Academy unites the educators and parents to ensure a personalized and effective approach for each child.

As a requirement for admission, it is mandatory that all parents or guardians attend the Parent Academy. Parents are also responsible for completing 10 volunteer hours per academic year.
Admission to PRAISE is offered to promising fifth-grade boys who complete the Academy’s Summer Leadership Academy and who qualify for the federal lunch program. The summer program is the leadership development aspect of the program and it is a requirement for students to attend prior to beginning PRAISE in the fall. Families are asked to make a three-year commitment to the program, building a firm foundation while they are in middle school for high school and beyond. BC

For More about PRAISE
To learn more about the PRAISE Academy, contact the school at 877-339-4300 or 410-467-1605, visit its website at
The school is free to families who reside in Baltimore. However, there is a $400 charge to attend the Summer Leadership Academy. Scholarships are available.

©Baltimore’s Child Inc. – May, 2007

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