Two very different programmes on opposite sides of the Atlantic are making great strides in making education more relevant to their audiences - one by harnessing their existing influences, the other by introducing them to new ones IN A CORNER OF the library at Michelle Clark Middle School, in Chicago's rough, tough west side, two men put half-a-dozen boys aged 11 to 14 through their paces. The boys, all with behaviour, learning or emotional difficulties, could be larking about outside. But they have chosen instead to commit themselves to weekly after-school sessions, catching up on their literacy and communication skills, learning the ways of the world outside their rough community and being held to account for everything they say and don't say, do and don't do. The two men, like the boys, are African-American and members of the Chicago chapter of 100 Black Men of America, a 32-year-old national organisation with a membership of more than 10,000 spread across 86 chapters. They are successful doctors, lawyers, businessmen and writers who have come together to improve the life of their communities, and particularly the lives of black boys by running volunteer mentor programmes and other initiatives. On a basic level, the 100 Black Men are striving to compensate for the glaring absence of one man in the life of most of these boys - their fathers. They have their work cut out for them. In the US, black children represent 17 per cent of all students but 41 per cent of all special education placements, particularly in the categories of 'educable mental retardation' and behaviour disorders. According to a report published in 2001 by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, black students are three times more likely than their white peers to be labelled 'mentally retarded' and are more likely to remain in separate special education classes rather than be reintegrated into the mainstream. The debate continues to rage over whether this signifies deep-seated, institutionalised racism or whether the socio-economic factors that impact negatively on mental and social development (low birth weight, exposure to lead paint and other environmental toxins) and on social development (fragmented families, crime, violence, gang culture, poor schools) are to blame. The truth is likely to be a combination. Whatever the causes, 100 Black Men made the decision two years ago to work with boys identified by their schools as heading towards special education. They developed a programme that focuses on literacy, vocabulary, life skills and presentation techniques in a bid to retain the children in mainstream classes. The scope is broad. There is an emphasis on character building, moral values, family relationships, friendships, girlfriends and health and sex education. Aspirational and career-orientated presentations are made and the boys are taken on outings and social events to widen their horizons. To make them think analytically, weekly discussions are held on the personal impact of current affairs. After the September 11 attacks, for example, a session was spent examining racist attitudes towards Muslims. On a different level, basic social skills training is considered vital to their life chances. For these children, the correct use of a knife and fork is often a new learning experience and one which, as far as the mentors are concerned, is as important as literacy and numeracy. John Randall, president of the Chicago branch of 100 Black Men, is a mild-mannered 40-year-old lawyer. But he is as unrelenting as an army drill sergeant when he gets the boys, one by one, to present their homework at the podium. Though not known for their co-operation in school, the boys take Randall's tough love regime good naturedly and seriously. If they don't, they're banned for a period. Every week, to kick off the session, they have to bring in two new words they've looked up themselves, one in English and one in Spanish, and also have to recite a poem by heart. This week it's a mawkish one called 'Don't Quit'. One by one, the boys get up and recite the poem at the podium, present their two words and await the feedback that is part of the process. Douglas Rutecki, 13, has decided to buck the trend and write his own poem on 100 Black Men. His delivery is barely audible and punctuated with the awkward gesticulations of a teenage boy who's ill at ease with himself. The feedback he receives from peers and mentors is constructively but unequivocally thumbs down. Christian Poole, 13, doesn't mince words. 'He hasn't made eye contact with us and he was tapping his fingers.' Others add their observations and mentor John Randall delivers his verdict: 'Douglas, you owe me five new words next week.' For Douglas, who has been in the group for three years, constructive criticism is nothing new. When asked why he comes, week after week, even though it's clearly a struggle for him to stay focused, he responds with clarity and disarming honesty. 'I behave better here because there aren't bad people here, so there's no need to act out. In school I try to be good but there's always something to mess you up.' Reading support teacher Petrina Patti sees the positive impact that being in the group has had. 'I'm amazed at how the boys behave so well when they're in the programme,' she says. There has been no independent assessment of the programme's efficacy to date. The organisation claims dramatic success with boys at a primary school in Charlotte, North Carolina that first launched the programme two years ago. Working with 27 at risk boys last year, by the end of nine months not a single one had to leave their mainstream class for special education class. The previous year, only three of the 24 boys in the mentoring programme were put into special education. The organisation admits these outcomes are open to interpretation and particularly that nobody can predict with certainty whether these boys would have wound up in special education had there been no intervention. To provide evidence, the Chicago chapter aims to commission a proper evaluation from university researchers. With this information it hopes to attract more funds from the black community and corporate sponsors. The money it receives enables the boys to attend an annual gala at a swank downtown hotel, complete with rented tuxedos, and to take horizon-widening outings from time to time. These activities aren't icing on the cake. 'We're competing with the knowledge these kids have that they could buy a car in three weeks by drug dealing, something they couldn't do if they were in college,' says mentor Larry Green. And John Randall, who grew up in this neighbourhood, adds: 'I saw 80 to 88 per cent of the boys I grew up with either dead or in jail because of drugs and gangs. I'm trying to show them there are no old drug dealers. They all die young.'