Howard Community College hired Steven Freeman Jr. last fall as a retention specialist, and he soon garnered a reputation as someone students — particularly black men — could rely on for counsel, support and encouragement, whether with academic problems or personal concerns.

Now Freeman has become a key component in the college's efforts to eliminate the achievement gap among black males. While the school had closed the gap about 15 years ago, it now finds it must address the matter again with a growing influx of older students and those who enroll at the last minute.

HCC has launched a support program called Howard PRIDE that began with a Black Male College Summit in April. The program has 40 students, but HCC officials say it should soon double in size. The program offers advisers and peer mentors.

Cindy Peterka, vice president of student services, said that while the components have not been finalized, the program will be designed to ensure that students maintain good academic standing (a minimum 2.0 grade-point average), that they complete a developmental math requirement and that the school increases its transfer and graduation rates among black males. The program will also help students develop skills such as public speaking and interviewing for a job.

HCC began discussing the need for the program after forming a committee to study the school's achievement gap. The committee began reviewing its findings as Freeman, who works in HCC's Academic/Student Support and Career Services division, made inroads within the campus community — ultimately serving as the men's basketball team's academic adviser.

Members of the team began referring friends to Freeman. Faculty members who saw his success in assisting HCC's black male population referred other students to him.

"They saw a lot of changes with how the young men were handling themselves on campus," said Freeman. "It grew from there.

"As the committee began developing the program, I would bring in insights from interactions I was having with the young men. I would say, 'I've worked with these five people, and they've struggled with math,' or 'I've worked with these six people, and they're having problems in their English class,'" Freeman said.

That led to the Black Male Summit, which was attended by dozens of students who spoke about some of their concerns and challenges, while HCC officials examined ways to provide assistance and support.

"We specifically asked them, 'Why are you here? What do you hope to get while you're here, and since you've been here, what have been your struggles?'" said Freeman, who noted that students were invited to talk about off-campus issues as well. "I told them, 'Now is the time to speak up. People are listening.'

"A lot of people talked about the fear of failing and the fear of asking for help," Freeman said, "or not realizing they needed help until it was too late."

According to figures that HCC provides to the Maryland Higher Education Commission, black students made up 27.7 percent of the school's overall enrollment last fall, up from 23.4 percent three years ago.

In data that tracked the progress of students four years after enrolling at the school, figures from fall 2006 show that 68.1 percent of HCC's black students had graduated, transferred, earned at least 30 credits with a cumulative GPA of at least 2.0 or were still at the school. For the overall student population, the figure was 78.5 percent.

Black students at HCC were also 1.8 times more likely than the school's overall population to end up on academic warning. Officials say that the number grows when the focus turns to developmental math, remedial course work in the subject.

"We have decided to make math and assistance with math, particularly developmental math, a key component of the program," Peterka said.

HCC student Michael Oyefusi, a member of the basketball team, said the Black Male Summit enabled students to communicate their concerns to successful men of color.

"They were willing to listen. They wanted to know what we as students at HCC had to say and what our experiences were," said Oyefusi. "I think it was helpful overall for both parties — for us to see what successful black males look like and how they carry themselves and dress and talk, and for them to see what the younger generation is like and how we function."

He said Freeman has helped in such areas as class scheduling.

"He makes sure that we're placed in classes that are challenging but at the same time aren't so rigorous that we can't handle the course load," Oyefusi said.

"He's real life. He's not one of those people when you come in and talk to him but you're not connecting with him," Oyefusi said. "He makes sure it's on a personal level and more than just any old person."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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