When insurance agent Garland Mitchell sets out for his weekly visit to Columbia's Talbott Springs Elementary School, he remembers those who helped him when he was a foster child in Washington.

"There were people . . . who provided the support that normally would be in a traditional family," the 53-year-old Columbia resident said. That is one reason, he said, that he is sensitive to the needs of students such as Jermard Hilliard, 7, the second-grader he has been assigned in Talbott Springs' mentor program.

Mitchell and 30 other mentors are part of an effort at the east Columbia school to introduce successful men as role models for boys growing up in fatherless homes. The mentors sit in classrooms with individual students to help them with assignments for an hour or so each week and sometimes see them on weekends.

Begun last year, the program is praised by parents and teachers for making young boys feel good about themselves. The program is one of a few in Howard County schools and is the largest directed at county elementary school students.

When retired Army Lt. Col. Charles L. Brown comes to Talbott Springs, Cheryl Tucker says her son, Julian, is on his best behavior.

The 8-year-old "can pick up on it when someone is genuinely concerned about him," she said. "He looks forward to the visits with great anticipation."

Brown, a Columbia real estate agent, "helps me with some of my math and my other schoolwork," said Julian, a third-grader. "When he doesn't come, I feel really disappointed, because I like him very much."

Talbott Springs Principal Thomas Brown said he began the program by recruiting friends and neighbors after he discovered that one-third of his students were growing up in single-parent households.

His school was looking for ways to "help each student achieve at levels commensurate with his or her potential," he said. He said the mentors have "had a tremendous impact."

Mentors "seem to fill in some emptiness these children really need filled by somebody," said teacher Ronee Rothman.

Winston Smith, director of division systems for the Rouse Co., is one of several mentors who are given leave from their jobs to help out at Talbott Springs.

Smith comes and sits next to Conrith Shaw, 9, at a table off to the side of the classroom. Conrith grins when Smith says, "Excellent," and "That's correct!" as the boy sounds out unfamiliar words.

Conrith is a good student, teacher Jannie Willis said, but he started the school year not liking to be corrected and not being able to move along to different lessons. Now, she said, "he's much better."

Conrith comes home "talking about Mr. Smith," said the boy's mother, Denise Thornton. "He is excited about pleasing Mr. Smith. He looks on him more or less like a buddy and someone who is trying to encourage him to learn and excel."

For children who are "underachieving," a mentor "allows them to make that connection between working hard and a successful adult life," said Thomas Brown, a principal in Howard County for 18 years.

"The thing that makes the program have such a tremendous impact is not so much what the mentors do," Brown said. "It's their presence here . . . . We see these men coming and going throughout the week. And when they're here, the impact is not only for the students assigned to them, but every kid in the class."