The Severn School kicked off a minority recruitment drive this week, introducing a new scholarship and pledging to work to diversify the student body at the exclusive prep school.
Fifteen black leaders from throughout the county were invited to a Tuesday morning meeting to learn more about the 76-year-old institution, which as late as 1967 admitted white males only. While at the school, they got to meet seventh-grader Monique Jennings, the first recipient of the new Leroy Sparks Minority Scholarship.
Sparks, now a social worker in Baltimore, is the man who broke the color barrier at Severn. He graduated in 1971.
"We want to get the message out into the community that we are actively recruiting qualified minority and economically disadvantaged students into the program," said director of admissions Robert Gray.
Ten percent of the Severn student body are members of minority groups, Gray said, up from 3 percent in 1980. However, only 2.5 percent -- 11 out of the 452 enrolled in grades six through 12 -- are black. Twelve percent of Anne Arundel's population is black.
Bryson Popham, a 1969 Severn graduate who established the Sparks scholarship with a donation last summer, called Severn "an important incubator of leadership that needs to make a positive effort to reach out more" into the minority community.
"I decided to challenge Severn to match my ($25,000) contribution for the scholarship fund, and I was encouraged by how receptive they were," said Popham, a white Annapolis lawyer. "They matched it before the ink was dry on my check."
The Sparks scholarship will be available to academically qualified black, Asian, Hispanic or American Indians to pay part of Severn's $7,000 annual tuition, depending on economic need.
Popham said his ultimate goal is to bring the Sparks endowment up to $500,000, so the interest will be able to pay for more than one or two students' tuition. He plans to raise $10,000 during Black History Month next February via donations from churches and civic leaders.
Dallas Evans, a member of Severn's board of directors, said the board was thrilled with Popham's "vision and generosity." He said the board is working to further integrate the faculty and approved the hiring of Severn's third minority faculty member. The teaching staff now includes two Hispanics and black.
The school also has a "World Studies" requirement which includes a semester on African history and a semester on Asian history.
"It's an issue that's raised itself with the board," Evans said. "We are constantly looking at numbers and the percentages of students enrolled and their backgrounds to see if we can improve them."
The Severn School was founded as a boarding prep school for the Naval Academy in 1914. Its Euro-centric curriculum and all-white male student body reflected the entrance examinations and requirements of the academy, said Jane Witowski, director of development.
The fact that blacks weren't accepted for Severn's special brand of leadership training until 1967 and women until 1971 was a reflection of the times, Witowski said.
Leroy Sparks, who was recruited out of Annapolis Junior High, remembered the day he arrived at Severn in the fall of 1967.
"It was kind of funny," he recalled. "When I first showed up I didn't know anybody, but everybody knew me, and everybody came up to me and said 'How are you doing, Leroy?' or 'Do you need any help finding your classes?' They were very helpful."
Sparks said he was honored to have the scholarship named after him and called Severn's efforts to recruit more minority students "progressive."