by Mary Palka -

The Ketterlinus Elementary first-graders are typical 6- and 7-year-olds.

A little giggly. A little antsy. And a lot chatty.

Their teacher is anything but typical in this St. Augustine school.

“You’d better tighten up,” Curtis Lewis, 27, tells a couple of boys getting a little too rambunctious.

In a school that has only three male teachers, Lewis is the only one who is black.

That’s not unique in St. Johns County, where less than 1 percent of the school system’s 1,797 teachers are black males.

And that’s far from unusual in the six-county Northeast Florida area, where only 3 percent of the more than 15,000 teachers are black men. Yet, in the 2006-07 school year, about 31 percent of the almost 216,000 students throughout those same six counties were black.

Debuting in January, a program named Call Me MISTER (Mentors Instructing Students Toward Effective Role Models) hopes to increase the number of black male teachers on the First Coast. Housed locally in the North East Florida Educational Consortium, a nonprofit agency that helps smaller local school districts, the program was created almost a decade ago at Clemson University in South Carolina.

South Carolina had a similar problem with a shortage of black male teachers 10 years ago. The state looked at statistics and saw that African-American boys were more likely to be suspended, referred for disciplinary action or drop out of school. Yet less than 1 percent of the state’s elementary school teachers were black males, said Roy Jones, executive director of Call Me MISTER.

So Clemson started the program that helps recruit black males to elementary education programs in state universities. In exchange for every year of financial help with such things as tuition or books, the college students are obligated to teach a year of school, Jones said.

The Florida model will be similar, though program director Ulysses Gilbert said it will rely more on the strength of local community colleges: Florida Community College at Jacksonville, St. Johns River Community College and Lake City Community College. Five men will enter each community college with hopes of eventually going into a four-year college to get their degree in elementary education.

Other participants are the community colleges in Ocala and Madison, plus the University of Florida, University of North Florida and Bethune-Cookman University.

Getting the program started

For this year, the program is open to freshmen who have already been accepted by the participating community colleges, Gilbert said. Next year, the program will recruit before students enroll.

The state has put up $300,000 to get the program started, paying full tuition and books for the 25 men who are selected to participate this year. Gilbert said he’s working on fundraising ideas for future years.

A local Call Me MISTER program is welcome news to Otilia Salmon, an associate professor in UNF’s Department of Foundation and Secondary Education. She said she could think of one African-American man in her classes in the last three years. She suspects the reason is because they lean toward fields such as business, where there’s more potential to make money.

Of the almost 2,500 active students – those eligible to register for classes – in UNF’s education program, 50 of them are black men, the university said.

Salmon said more black male teachers are “dreadfully needed.” He said the program focuses on elementary school, because research shows that early intervention can help keep children on the right track.

Jones said black male teachers in the Call Me MISTER program aren’t just good mentors.

“They’re stars,” Jones said of the people who have gone through the South Carolina program. “They’re looked up to. Children see and view being a teacher differently.”

The program provides academic assistance, including focusing on developing dispositions in teachers to make them more effective and help them “reach children who may appear to be unteachable,” Jones said.

“Our whole aim is to break through those stereotypical images,” Jones said.

Educator lifts program

Call Me MISTER was just in the brainstorming stage when Joy Taylor was an assistant principal at St. Augustine High School in 1999. The veteran educator, who was also an adjunct professor at Flagler College, saw a huge need for minority teachers – men or women.

When teachers in St. Johns County sponsored interns from the college, the teachers received college credit to use for classes at Flagler.

Taylor and another teacher came up with the idea of using the college credit, donated from teachers throughout the county, to establish a scholarship at Flagler. They raised enough to help one student. The recipient would be a minority student who wanted to study education.

Taylor thought the perfect person to receive the scholarship was senior Curtis Lewis, a basketball player who was a natural leader with mostly A’s and B’s. So she encouraged him to apply.

“I always felt he was a leader,” Taylor said. “He was the kind of kid I had in mind when we were trying to home-grow our own African-American teachers.”

Her proudest moment was when Lewis invited her to his college graduation.

Lewis says he thinks teaching will be his long-term career. He likes the children, and he thinks they like him too. If he doubted it, a note left in his classroom earlier this year might have helped reaffirm it.

In crayon, a first-grader wrote that she loved Mr. Lewis and what he was teaching:

“Art rools