Battling Baltimore's Dropout Problem


October 25, 1994|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,Sun Staff Writer

Danielle Johnson recognized a good deal when she saw it. It was 1988, she was a sophomore at Lake Clifton-Eastern High School, and the deal was this: Stick to your studies, graduate from high school with decent grades, and we'll guarantee you a college education.

Six years later, Ms. Johnson is about to reap the dividends of the deal. On May 21, her 23rd birthday, she'll earn a criminal justice degree from Coppin State College.

And because she works full time as a file clerk while taking 18 credits at Coppin, she's accustomed to a busy schedule. She'd like a job now in her field, said Ms. Johnson, even though she won't graduate for seven months.

"It's been hard at times," says Ms. Johnson, who lives with her mother in Northeast Baltimore, "but they kept their part of the bargain, and I kept mine. They gave me a mentor, and they tutored me in math. Mostly, they just stayed on my case."

And they didn't renege. The man who struck the bargain with Ms. Johnson, Bob Bonnell, founded the Educational Opportunity XTC Program (EOP) at Lake Clifton-Eastern eight years ago and since then he has raised some $1.5 million to keep young people like Ms. Johnson in school and to send them to college.

EOP and another Baltimore program, Project RAISE (Raising Ambitions Instills Self-Esteem), which announced last week that they're merging Nov. 1, are patterned after the "I Have a Dream" program that Eugene Lang, a New York philanthropist, announced in 1981 as he was giving a graduation speech at his old elementary school in East Harlem.

EOP and RAISE, the latter founded in 1987 by Robert C. Embry Jr., now president of the Abell Foundation, have worked with more than a thousand students in the poorest of city schools and more than 450 mentors -- civic leaders like Mr. Embry, but also secretaries, data processors, nurses, university professors and presidents, pastors and parishioners. The mentors are trained by RAISE, which has offices on Eutaw Street in downtown Baltimore.

Mr. Bonnell ticks off the names of Ms. Johnson and several others he refers to as "my hotshots."

"Danielle's one of our successes," says Mr. Bonnell, "but we've had a lot of failures, too. It's tough. Nobody's found the answers yet."

That's an unusually pessimistic assessment from Mr. Bonnell, 69, a retired executive who has devoted much of his life to EOP over the past eight years and who usually sees half-empty glasses as half-full.

Project RAISE's oldest students won't graduate from high school until next spring, but one of the things Mr. Bonnell, Mr. Lang and others have learned is that a free four-year college education is not the inducement some might think. The battle to rescue young people from educational and financial poverty has as many defeats as victories, Mr. Bonnell says. A scholarship down the road somewhere isn't nearly enough. The students need bolstering in school and the advice and friendship of successful adults.

RAISE officials estimate that 50 percent to 55 percent of the students it has tried to help will actually earn a diploma. That doesn't sound spectacular, but the graduation rate of a "control group" is about 30 percent, and at Lake Clifton-Eastern, the only school where EOP operates, it is closer to 20 percent. That is, 80 percent of this year's ninth grade will drop out before 1998.

Far cry from old days

Schools were closed on Friday for the annual professional meetings of the Maryland State Teachers Association. Most of the MSTA activity was centered in Ocean City, but there were meetings in several other locations, and administrators were having their own get-togethers.

It was a far cry from the old days, when 10,000 educators -- from teachers to the state superintendent of schools -- converged on the 5th Regiment Armory in Baltimore, took up every hotel room in town and heard keynote addresses from the likes of John F. Kennedy.

"It all changed in 1968," a retired superintendent said somewhat ruefully at one of the administrators' meetings Friday. That, of course, was the year teachers won the right to bargain collectively. Administrators had to go their own way, and the MSTA became a union.


Stephen Vicchio thinks it's silly for anyone to try to choose Maryland's "Professor of the Year," but he traveled from the College of Notre Dame to Washington yesterday to pick up the award and join in the hoopla.

He'll probably write a newspaper essay about the experience, poking gentle fun at himself and the "Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching U.S. Professors of the Year Program."

A popular philosophy professor, Dr. Vicchio, 43, is teaching four classes at Notre Dame and one called "The Physician in Society" at the Johns Hopkins medical school. He also lectures at Baltimore area churches on the Book of Job, about which he's writing his own book, and the nature of evil.

To win the national award, he had to be nominated by his president, Sister Rosemarie Nassif, his teaching peers and students. Then he had to write an essay. Dr. Vicchio fashioned his entry after advice given him by a graduate school professor he approached years ago when his teaching seemed to have soured.

"I called him and listened to his advice for half an hour," said Dr. Vicchio. "Finally, he got to the heart of it. The key to good teaching, he said, is to fail a little bit more nobly the next time."

So that's the title of the essay that helped earn Steve Vicchio the professor of the year award: "Failing a Little More Nobly."

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