Special to The Richmond Register

African American children comprise 17 percent of the student population nationwide, but their chances of seeing an African-American male teacher in front of their classroom are about 1 in 100.

Hoping to close that gap, Eastern Kentucky University recently became the first college or university in the Commonwealth or any adjacent state to join the Call Me MISTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Modeling) program, a national initiative begun at Clemson University that seeks to attract more African American males to the teaching profession. The MISTER acronym also refers to the classic film “In the Heat of the Night,” in which Sidney Poitier’s character demands respect with the line, “They call me Mister Tibbs!”

Five EKU freshmen are enrolled in the program, which is housed in and funded by the University’s College of Education, but the program is open to all undergraduate and graduate students who plan to pursue a career in elementary or middle school teaching.

“We want to help our MISTER Scholars frame their consciousness around a commitment to education, develop a sense of responsibility and gain the courage to succeed,” said Dr. Sherwood Thompson, assistant dean of EKU’s College of Education.

Participants in the program must be Eastern students from Kentucky, show a strong interest in the teaching profession and maintain at least a “B” average. In order to be selected, they also must complete two essays, one explaining why they want to be an educator and another about how the MISTER program will help them achieve their goals, and participate in an interview.

“This is not a remediation program,” emphasized Dr. Norman Powell, director of teacher education services for the College of Education. “We’re looking for the best and brightest.”

Dr. Roger Cleveland, director of the program, put it another way: “We’re looking for quality, not quantity. We want students who would be successful in whatever profession they select.”

Once in the program, MISTER Scholars will receive additional academic support, perform community service (such as tutoring high school students), attend numerous professional development conferences and workshops and participate in various exercises to build their leadership skills.

“We want them to come out as role models and as leaders in their profession and in the community,” said Cleveland.

The infusion of more African American males at the head of K-12 classrooms will have wide-ranging positive effects, he added.

(And not just African American males, the three agreed, noting that the number of male teachers is at a 40-year low, according to the National Education Association.)

“It’s better for all students,” Cleveland said. “They need to see African American males in such settings in order to dispel negative stereotypes.”

“When you look at the image of African American males in society, it tends to be negative,” Powell said. “Here is an opportunity to show for the MISTERs themselves and to the community at large that there are very positive contributions that African American males are making and can make.

“Education,” said Powell, “is the new civil rights movement. It’s one of the best ways of making an impact on the future because one person can have an invaluable influence on hundreds of young people.”

“We want to produce a graduate who’s going to change lives, be a real help agent in the schools,” Thompson added.

Dr. Roy Jones, director of the Call Me MISTER program at Clemson, said: “We are quite excited to have Eastern Kentucky University join the growing partnership of institutions to launch Call Me MISTER. From the very start, we were impressed with EKU’s persistent, demonstrated interest prior to our site visit. Dr. Sherwood Thompson, our initial connection with EKU, gave us a tremendous sense of confidence that EKU could provide the leadership, commitment and environment necessary for student participants in Call Me MISTER to succeed.”

Students who would like to learn more about the program should visit www.coe.eku.edu/mister or contact one of the following: Dr. Roger Cleveland at 622-6678 or roger.cleveland@eku.edu, Dr. Sherwood Thompson at 622-1175 or sherwood.thompson@eku.edu, Dr. Norman Powell at 622-1828 or norman.powell@eku.edu or Felisa Wilson, recruiting and retention specialist with the College of Education, at 622-1828 or felisa.wilson@eku.edu.