In a cheerful, colorfully decorated classroom at Alexander Elementary School in a poor, gloomy neighborhood of Greenville, S.C., Damon Qualls is surrounded by eager fifth graders.
As he reads from a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, the 15 fifth graders give him their complete attention, a measure of respect for Qualls in only his third year as a teacher.
Qualls, 24, is a rare sight at Alexander -- and every other school in South Carolina -- the only male among the 32 teachers assigned there.
"Male students want to have someone in the classroom they can identify with," says Qualls. "And you can go even further and say African-American students need someone to identify with."
That is clear at recess. Even on a chilly winter day, students from several of Alexander's grades enthusiastically follow Qualls to the playground where he directs a game of baseball. He is one of a handful of African-American men to teach in the Greenville County school district, where blacks account for more than one quarter of the students.
Nationally, there is a huge gender gap dividing the ranks of public school teachers, according to 2005 figures from the National Education Association. Of the 3.7 million teachers today in the United States, just 25 percent are men, a number that has stagnated for years despite efforts to increase that percentage. In some individual states, the gap is greater. In South Carolina, 18 percent of public school teachers are men. And of that group, only 1 percent is African-American.
"They are a precious commodity," says Phinnize Fisher, superintendent of Greenville County Schools, which has 67,000 students.
Greenville recruits men nationwide, facing stiff competition and confronting lack of interest in a starting teacher's salary of $30,308 a year.
"There are so many exciting opportunities and careers that they can go into instead of teaching," says Fisher, "at much higher salaries."
But just as Qualls provides hope for his students, he also provides hope for his school district and others in South Carolina. He is a graduate of an aggressive program, "Call Me Mister," which recruits African-American male students entering college to become teachers.
At Clemson University, 15 young black men sit around a conference table, all neatly dressed in "Call Me Mister" signature colors of orange and brown, for a discussion of their progress toward becoming teachers. About one-third of their college costs are being paid by South Carolina, and the students have agreed to teach in the state for four years after graduation.
But it is apparent that reducing the cost of a college education is only part of the reason they chose to become teachers.
Tony Webb, 26, is the first in his family to attend college, and after flunking 7th and 8th grades, he didn't have much hope of ever seeing a place like Clemson. He will graduate next year.
"I want to be a teacher because I had a horrible experience with the public school system," says Webb.
"There really isn't a positive image of African-American males," he adds, "other than being athletes and entertainers."
Abdurrab Watkins, a sophomore, 20, says enthusiastically, "The potential involved in this program is tremendous."