On the rise up to manhood

A special class aims to help sixth-grade boys have a smoother transition.

By LETITIA STEIN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 23, 2007

TAMPA - Before first period ends in Room 316, the all-boys class huddles in a circle, hands pressed together for the closing ritual.

Mr. Nelson asks for something they have in common.



He makes the call: "On one, two, three..."

Twelve sixth-grade boys - some as tall as Mr. Nelson, others still prone to high-pitched giggles - raise their hands into the air.

"Puberty!" they shout.

The bell rings, closing another day of a one-of-its-kind elective at Stewart Middle School. In this class, boys write the rules. They can throw balls indoors and set secret rituals. They can talk about almost anything, from video games to their fears.

All to teach boys to become men.

"They're going to make that transition whether we like it or not," says Mike Trepper, executive director of the Boys Initiative Tampa Bay, which created this class. "Whether they learn all the wrong things or all the right things - that's what this is about."

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From the headlines these days, one might question whether men have much of a future.

Alarms are sounding nationally about male students and violent behavior. Their suicide rates are significantly higher than girls', and their high school graduation rates are lower. Women now make up the majority on every one of Florida's 11 university campuses.

The situation is no brighter in Hillsborough, where boys at all levels lag behind girls in reading, and are almost twice as likely to be sent to the principal's office to be disciplined.

Although the "boys crisis" remains controversial, local educators are concerned enough to take action. Last year, Pinellas County schools began a limited experiment with same-sex classrooms. Hillsborough is preparing to launch the concept at James Elementary next year.

As boy-centered clubs and support groups spring up, the class at Stewart Middle is the first of its kind in Hillsborough.

The teacher, James Nelson, works for the Boys Initiative, a nonprofit group geared toward boys and young men throughout the community. The class is modeled after a program at Buchanan Middle School that is affiliated with the Ophelia Project, a sister organization that addresses girls issues.

The goal is tearing down the "boys code" - expectations that boys don't cry, don't talk about their problems, don't ask for help or directions.

Called "Boys on the Rise," the class started this fall at Stewart, a diverse magnet school in Tampa's inner city. All sixth-grade boys enroll for a three-week rotation as part of their elective wheel.

"If they come in and start getting the idea that it's okay to talk about things," Nelson says, "by the time they are in eighth-grade, you could change the culture of the school."

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The boys shuffle into a dimly lit classroom as the bell rings at 8:03 a.m. They slouch into desks arranged in a semicircle - man-sized adolescents next to twig-like kids. The drone of energy fills the room - hands rap-pap-papping, sneakers tapping.

The physical activity doesn't bother the teacher, who drops references to video games so the boys will know he can relate.

"That's how they learn," says Nelson, whose shaved head and crisp khakis make him look older than his 24 years. "I tell them the more they talk, the less I talk. And that's a good thing."

He folds open a clean page on an oversized note pad and poses a question to the class. "What is it that you like about being a boy?"

Sebastian Cogswell's hand flies up. "Being able to play tackle football."

A class leader tosses a green squishy ball to the boy who can talk next.

"Not having to sit on the toilet."

"Video games."

"Being stronger than girls."

Nelson follows up with questions about the characteristics that define men and the transition to manhood. The boys have a wide-ranging list:

- Men - Eat sloppy. Stronger. Do not give birth. Chest hair. Drive. Can be king, pope or president. Abs and pecs. Taller. More likely to be famous, engineers and mechanics. Grow up to be a dad to a family.

- Transition to manhood - Out of parents' house. Go to movies by self. Get married. Make decisions on own. Drink. Watch R-rated movies. No curfew.

Gross humor is interspersed with surprisingly tender comments.

Eleven-year-old Angel Calderon, who has a sweetly round face and black glasses, defines becoming a man as "to grow up to be dedicated and have a family, stuff like that."

The boys are gently prodded into reflection. When Sebastian says he'll be a man when he can go places alone, his teacher asks how he'll pay for the activities.

"I have a Busch Gardens pass," Sebastian says.

"Who paid for that?" Nelson asks.

"My mom," Sebastian replies.

"Just checking," the teacher smiles.

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During second period, Nelson sends passes for a group of boys in a class that met earlier in the year. They gather for a followup session.

"Have you guys been rising up?" he asks.

Nods circle the room. Matthew Tykot, 11, shares how the program helped him handle a bullying problem.

"One of my friends was being picked on by an older kid," he says. "I went and told the teacher - and it stopped."

They recount favorite lessons. The maze: They had to work together to figure the right steps to take. The box: They stepped inside an open box, marked with masking tape on the floor, to symbolize instances where they have felt boxed in by "boys code" stereotypes.

The small group recalls their secret rituals and conversations about relationships, like how to tell a girl they like her. Nelson wants to know what else the school can do to help them.

Wilson Quinonez, an 11-year-old with lightly spiked hair, chunky glasses and wristbands studded with silver squares, raises his hand.

"I want to know my teacher better, so if I had a problem, I could go to her or him," he says, a sentiment echoed around the room.

The Boys Initiative director nods enthusiastically. To Trepper, the program is a living laboratory for ideas that can be applied in traditional classroom settings and other projects throughout the community.

"They want to go up and talk to that teacher," he says. "It's huge if we can send that message."

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 813 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.