Choir performance to show Hickey School students in new light

November 27, 1993|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Staff Writer

When County Executive Roger B. Hayden lights Baltimore County's official Christmas tree in Towson on Thursday, look for the guys in the gray tuxedos singing carols.

They're students from the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School for juvenile delinquents -- the youths county residents have heard about but have never seen at a public event.

After years of publicity about fights and escapes by increasingly violent teen-agers, the school hasn't had a positive image. But Youth Services International, the private company that took over the troubled institution in July, now has other ideas.

That's why the youths from Hickey will be there with Towson High School students who will handle the instrumental accompaniment at the 6 p.m. program.

"We're hoping to present our students in a different light," said Hickey music director Sharon Phipps. "I'm very excited about it.

"We have ordinary children who made bad mistakes."

Ever the smiling but stern music teacher, Ms. Phipps faced a roomful of slouching high school boys during a rehearsal on Wednesday.

All wore dark blue Hickey sweat suits. A few weren't really singing and a few more were mentally miles away, but most worked at the carols as they thought about spending their holidays at the Cub Hill facility.

Thirty to 35 Hickey students will likely make the trip Thursday, Ms. Phipps said. They will be accompanied by half that number of staff members, said Michael E. Higgins, director of the 90-day "Impact" program in which the choir members are enrolled.

These are teens, he said, who have been sent to Hickey by judges around Maryland after failing to perform court-ordered community service or for otherwise violating the rules of community-based programs.

They live in the least restrictive area at Hickey, outside the razor-wired, high-security compound for hard-core offenders.

AThey have been found guilty of relatively minor offenses, such as theft, drug use or breaking and entering.

A smaller version of the choir will represent Baltimore County on Dec. 13 at the State Office Building on West Preston Street in Baltimore at the governor's All State Choir.

The program will feature singers from all over Maryland, said Lea Petr, an aide to Mr. Hayden.

Ms. Petr and Susan K. DiLonardo, director of the Towson Business Association, said they believed the school's participation in the tree lighting along with Towson High's brass choir will be good for all involved.

The ceremony usually draws several hundred people and will feature a canned-food collection for the poor.

Santa Claus will arrive in a pony-driven sleigh on wheels. The event will be held on the fountain plaza between the old and new county courthouses.

Ms. Phipps said the participants in her choir are volunteers, and must have good behavior records to attend.

A former concert pianist, Ms. Phipps works at the school with her husband, Jerry, a former basketball coach and physical education teacher at City College.

Most of the youths who have joined her program have no background in music, she said. They are learning for the first time to appreciate music, starting with elementary skills such as matching the pitch of their voices to a piano.

New programs such as Ms. Phipps' music classes are being used to "make a significant change" in the school, she said.

Mr. Higgins said Youth Services International is working intensively with the youths in the 90-day program to make changes in their lives before they go home.

The company, run by former Jiffy Lube President James W. Hindman, took over after a private company from Denver failed to turn the school around.

Part of the idea of the 90-day program is to have the teen-agers mingle with people outside the institution as an introduction to community life.

To that end, they participate in athletic competition with teams from local churches, and volunteer in county recycling and tree-planting programs.

Also, the school has peer therapy groups for the students and a parents support group to involve families in changing their children's lives.

The school wants to teach discipline, Mr. Higgins said, and several things they may have missed along the way, including music, table manners, social responsibilities and awareness of the impact of their crimes on victims.

"We don't want them feeling like they are the victims," Mr. Higgins said.

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