Journey to excellence through Douglass High

June 16, 1994|By Robert Hilson Jr. | Robert Hilson Jr.,Sun Staff Writer

Thaddeus Lancaster beat long odds to become the valedictorian at Baltimore's Frederick Douglass Senior High.

From his home in the shadows of Pennsylvania Avenue -- a neighborhood burdened by the ills of urban poverty -- to classes at the image-battered Douglass High, Thaddeus was tireless in achieving his goal -- an education.

He'd awaken daily at 7 a.m., catch the Metro at the Lafayette Market station and arrive at school by 8:30 a.m. After school, he'd work at a McDonald's in Pikesville until 10 p.m. or 11 p.m., then head home to study.

And study and study.

"I'd get home sometimes real tired, but I knew that I have to study and keep going," said Thaddeus, 18. "Of course there were many times when I felt like going to bed or doing something else. Anything else. But I'd be typing papers sometimes until 3 or 4 in the morning."

His diligence paid off: he scored more than 1,000 on his SATs and received a full scholarship to Morgan State University. He will live on campus and major in biology.

"It wasn't easy, but getting a good education was something that I wanted to do. That was my goal from the beginning" he said. "There were times I though about giving up, and then I thought about what I wanted.

"There were times when I wanted to give up, but I said that nothing you get is for free."

Thaddeus ranked first among 120 students who recently graduated from Douglass. He overcame the pitfalls of his neighborhood and he refused to be distracted by the negative publicity surrounding the school.

He lives in West Baltimore's Upton neighborhood, a community where 32 percent of residents receive welfare and 35 percent of the teen-agers 16 to 19 years old are dropouts, according to city planning department statistics.

It is a neighborhood that offers few successful role models for a kid with college aspirations. Fewer than 5 percent of the area's residents are college graduates and fewer than 5 percent are in college.

In recent years, Douglass High School's image has been battered by student violence, declining test scores, poor attendance and high dropout rates. The school's problems were so serious that it narrowly averted a state takeover.

Thaddeus is concerned about the public's perception of Douglass and the negative stereotypes that hound black youths. He regards his success as proof that students can get a good education at Douglass and that all black teen-agers are not street thugs.

'I beat the odds'

"Most of the stereotypes I've proved wrong already. I'm 18 years old, I'm still alive, I'm going to college," said Thaddeus, who hopes to enter the medical field. "I beat the odds. I should be dead by now, or in jail or on drugs. I'm not, though.

"In inner city schools they always say he's not going to get that far and if he graduates it's rare. It's just stereotypes to get past."

Thaddeus, whose father is dead, lives with his mother in a three-story rowhouse on Pitcher Street near Pennsylvania Avenue.

Although his sure-fire method for academic success was "think of school, school and nothing but school," he chose another route.

Instead, he worked 30 hours a week at a fast-food restaurant, involved himself in numerous extra-curricular activities and thoroughly enjoyed all social aspects of high school. However, each day he also managed to find several hours for his studies.

"You can find time for other things, but you have to find time to study, too. It's too important not to," Thaddeus said. "I wanted to do well, and I did."

Thaddeus said the teachers at the West Baltimore school encouraged him and made him want to do well academically.

"They have a lot of good teachers there that you might not be able to find at any other school," Thaddeus said. "They care about the students. They'd come in early or stay late if they

knew you wanted help."

Thaddeus transferred to Douglass after his freshman year at the Baltimore School for the Arts, where he played the clarinet and took music lessons. He was not readmitted to the School for the Arts after he failed a music course. Afterward, he attended Douglass because he lives in the school's attendance zone.

Although he knew Douglass had a glorious past illustrated by a long list of successful graduates -- including the late Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall -- he was apprehensive about the school.

So, he made the most of it

"I didn't want to go there, and I did want to go there. Most of my friends went to City and Poly, but it was hard transferring from one citywide school to another," he said. "So, I said since I'm here I might as well make the most out of it."

In his second year at Douglass, Thaddeus began an all-out effort to prepare himself for college and life beyond. He took academic courses during the summer. He enrolled in the Upward Bound weekend program. He sought out instructors as much as possible.

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