DuVal High School Principal Wilbert Hawkins said that when he sees his students at school, he is not merely scanning faces in the crowd, he is watching the way they interact. And when he overhears his students talking in the hallways, he doesn't tune out the noise, he listens with an attentive, critical ear.

Through this kind of observation, Hawkins said he began to realize to what degree students' personal lives affected their performance at school. He concluded that many students lack positive role models -- black male role models in particular. Three years ago, in the effort to fill that void, Hawkins introduced the idea of the Volunteer Student Support Committee, an organization of successful black professional men who come to DuVal each month to share their personal and professional experiences with students.

"I looked at the kids at the school and the kinds of problems that got them into difficulty -- fighting, profanity, talking back to authority -- and asked 'what is the missing ingredient?' We found that in many cases, the youngsters had either no role models or poor ones," said Hawkins. "The lack of positive role models surrounding the youngsters is one of our greatest concerns. I wanted to come up with a group of black men to provide these examples for them, while at the same time exposing them to the various types of career opportunities that exist out there."

A DuVal graduate himself, Hawkins is, in effect, providing such an example. And he attributes much of his own success in high school and college to the adults in his life. Consequently, when he tells students "I've been there before," he is speaking from experience.

"I've sat in the seats where you are sitting now, and I was fortunate that I had people like these {committee} gentlemen here today to give me support and encouragement," he told a class of ninth and 10th grade students recently. "I can tell you from experience that you should always take advantage of the opportunities before you, because there won't always be someone there to extend you a hand."

The volunteer committee attempts to accomplish its goals through direct contact with the students. Typically, two or three members a month sit in on selected classes and conduct discussions on a variety of topics. Sometimes the guest will talk about his profession. In some instances, they have been known to organize field trips or conduct demonstrations or experiments. Usually, the guests who work in a given profession will speak to students who are studying subjects related to that field.

At other times, the discussion is tailored to issues {school, drugs, sex, goals, self-esteem, etc.} of more direct concern to the student. In nearly all cases, the meetings are designed to stimulate a give-and-take exchange of information.

Another of the volunteer committee's principal goals is to assist the students in the development of coping skills, a problem the adults said they believe is the cause of many students' troubles in school. As a result, much of the group discussion emphasizes such factors as: the development of a positive self-image; the importance of education and goal-setting; the dangers of drugs and other pitfalls; and ways of dealing with stress.

"We've found that a number of youngsters don't do well at school because of an inability to cope with conflict. One of the things we focus on in speaking to the youngsters is changing some of their perceptions of their teachers, and of adults in general, to show them that these people are interested in their development," said Hawkins.

Although the concept of providing youngsters with role models is loosely based on the "Big Brothers" organizational model, Hawkins said the idea of getting a group of men together for a good cause at DuVal evolved out of a meeting of the men's fellowship group he participated in at Ebenezer A.M.E. Church. On a retreat, they discussed the prospects of finding some way to help the young men of the community.

Ultimately, it was suggested that the men's group should move from the church into DuVal. The group, which later evolved into the volunteer committee, and increased its membership outside the church, is now in its third year. The VSSC has "between 15 and 20 active members and a working directory of about 35 that can be called upon if needed" according to Hawkins.

The members come from a variety of professional backgrounds and age groups. Some are parents of DuVal students. And all express a desire to make an impact on the students in any way they can.

"Our group isn't large, and sometimes when working around work schedules it's hard for some {of the men} to participate as much as they'd like, but the ones who do participate bring a genuine sincerity and commitment to the time they spend with the students," said Charles Mays, a customer service representative for Xerox, who is the current president of the committee. "We like to feel that we're making a difference. If we ever begin to feel we're not reaching them, we will re-examine our methods. But as long as the effort is made to reach out and show we care, there is no failure."

Other members agree with this.

"We as adults can become complacent. {Talking to the students} sort of rejuvenates us, and we like to think it's a pleasant change for them too," said James C. Green, a supervisor for the D.C. Board of Parole. "When you can bring people like us into a classroom to share what we have to offer and kind of color the picture for them, it may have added impact."

"If there is anything that is discouraging, it is that we do not have enough time to share. If we {adults} want to help kids, we can't sit back and wait for the magic wand to be waved," added George Austin, a professor at Bowie State College. "It's sometimes hard to tell how much impact you have, but ultimately you hope they will come back and let you know."

In recent months, the committee has been seeking to branch out into more areas than ever before. Last May for example, Mays organized a trip to the Xerox Corp. in Rosslyn to show DuVal's business students how a major corporation works. The group hopes to set up similar activities in the future.

In addition to the monthly sessions, the committee is collaborating with DuVal's Parent Teacher Student Association to sponsor a fashion show in February, with the proceeds going to the establishment of a scholarship fund. And in April, the group will hold its second Career Day for ninth and 10th grade students.

"By working with the PTSA, we hope to be able to accomplish much more than before. Not only will it encourage more parental involvement in school-sponsored activities, but it also helps us to incorporate women into the group, which is something we've wanted to do," said Hawkins.

The committee members, hopeful that similar groups will be formed in other schools in the area, are confident that others will view their success as an example. In the meantime, however, members remain committed to their own involvement with the DuVal students. Their methods, and their message, remain the same.

"We're trying to get the kids away from the fantasy world, where the people they look up to are the Michael Jacksons and the Doctor J's," said Hawkins. "Not to take anything away from these people, because they do serve a purpose -- but we want to show these kids that the realistic superstars in their lives are the ones who pack their own lunches before they go to work every day -- the guys who live next door."