“Why are there so few African-American male teachers in elementary schools in this city?” This was the question Dr. Tom Parks posed 12 years ago from his Clemson University classroom in South Carolina.

In delving deeper into his quandary, he discovered a disturbing trend: Black males made up only one percent of the teachers in the elementary schools in South Carolina, this despite the fact that there are over 600 elementary schools in the state.

The discovery inspired Dr. Parks, through his connections at Clemson University, to partner with three historically black colleges-Benedict College, Claflin University and Morris College-to launch the much-lauded “Call Me MISTER” program to recruit, train, certify and secure employment for African-American men as teachers in the state’s public elementary schools.

The program, which officially began in 2000, has since attracted six other colleges in the state, including Midlands Technical College, Orangeburg/Calhoun Technical College, and Tri-County Technical College.

Recently, a letter was passed along on the Internet misrepresenting the program as seeking to recruit black males “who wanted to receive full scholarships to study education.” It drew the ire of Call Me MISTER Director Roy Jones (who replaced founder Parks in 2003), who characterized it as shoddy misinformation.

“The e-mail was completely bogus, and I don’t know who wrote it,” said Jones. “We receive hundreds of applications annually from students interested in becoming involved with the program. It is a difficult task narrowing down the students that we decide to take. However, let it be clear: The students come to us.”

Prospective MISTERs are expected to demonstrate a commitment to becoming a teacher and submit to an interview before being admitted. The student must gain acceptance in one of the 10 schools that offer the program. The program does offer about $5,000 in tuition assistance; however, graduates are expected to teach at least one year for every year of assistance received.

Abdurrabb Watson, a 20-year-old sophomore student at Clemson University was inspired to become a MISTER both because of his interest in education, which he knew would be his field of study entering college, and because of his desire to use his education “to service others.”

“I heard about the program when I attended a one-week workshop at Clemson, and I spoke with Dr. Jones, who told me about the program,” said Watson. “It felt like the perfect opportunity to give back to the children of the community while taking on a role model role for them as well. I am proud to have the chance to take part in this very special program.”

“One of the important aspects of the program is the fact that for minority and non-minority children, seeing a MISTER leading his class represents something they don’t have in sports stars and entertainers: a black man of authority whom they can reach out and touch,” said Jones. “It shows them that black men are not one-dimensional athletes, but are also proud scholars as well.”

Though the program has thus far been based solely in South Carolina, accolades have been heaped upon it nationwide. In 2001, Call Me MISTER was featured on The Oprah Winfrey Show and selected to be part of Oprah’s Angel Network, praised by former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and featured recently on ABC World News.

The first class of 20 MISTERs graduated in May 2004 and entered classrooms. Jones hopes to expand the program to more schools throughout the state and eventually to other states as well.