An education a world away Boarding school: A Baltimore-based firm is recruiting at-risk 12-year-old boys to study in rural Kenya. But some critics fear the students could be at equal risk so far from home.

June 04, 1996|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

With the backing of the city school superintendent and the Abell Foundation, a Baltimore firm is recruiting at-risk middle-school boys to study in rural Kenya starting this fall.

While the firm promises a life-changing odyssey far from the guns and drugs plaguing the boys' low-income communities, critics worry that the Baraka School will expose the 12-year-olds to other risks far from home.

The school is still under construction on a 150-acre farm in Kenya, surrounded by cattle ranches and savanna inhabited by elephants, giraffes, cheetahs and leopards. The site is about four hours north of the capital, Nairobi, in a developing country struggling to conquer its own poverty-related crime.

The firm plans to take 20 seventh-graders this fall for classes in remedial reading and math, Swahili, and the history, cultures and ecology of Kenya. The alternative school eventually will board 100 Baltimore youths, organizers said. Some will stay up to three years.

"It was initially conceived as a way to address the needs of Baltimore City youth who are in dangerous communities, kids who are at risk," said Baltimore lawyer Keefe Clemons, vice president of Elimu Inc., founded to open the school. In Swahili, elimu means education and baraka means blessing.

But with no track record, a remote location, and a recruitment campaign timed well before buildings, amenities and staff are in place, Baraka School could be difficult to pitch. There are not even photographs yet of the site.

"When I thought about a child being away from a parent, that far away, I began to question it," said Robert Hopkins, principal at Lombard Middle School. "I decided to let them make a presentation, but I decided I would not push parents toward it.

"When parents ask if they should do it, I really can't recommend this."

No other residential school expressly for American preteens has opened in the United States or overseas, say several Maryland and national authorities on boarding schools.

The school is said to be the brainchild of George L. Small, a retired Baltimore businessman who owns a vast cattle ranch in Kenya's highlands. He has already donated a corner of his 50,000-acre Mpala Ranch to Princeton University and the Smithsonian Institution, which have opened an ecological research center.

Small, who is in Kenya, could not be reached for comment. Messages left with his lawyer, housekeeper and colleagues in Baltimore went unanswered, as were faxes sent to a business in Kenya where he receives messages. The ranch has no telephone.

Fence will keep wildlife out

School organizers have chosen a site 15 minutes from Small's ranch, closer to a town, on a farm about the size of the Baltimore Zoo. An electrified fence will keep wildlife out, they said. The school will have a phone, a staff nurse and house parents to live with the children, they said.

Brochures given to Baltimore students compare the landscape in Kenya to scenes from the Walt Disney movie "The Lion King."

Pamphlets for adults say that by immersing the children in study and activities to boost their self-esteem and grades, the school can make them candidates for college-prep high schools. The firm will track students' progress when they return, they say.

"I am very excited about this because it gives us another option," said Superintendent of Schools Walter G. Amprey.

He has directed his staff to investigate whether city school aid can be used to help pay for the children's education in Kenya. In a December letter to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, Amprey estimated the total first-year cost would be $60,000 to $100,000.

The Abell Foundation has contributed $360,000. The foundation and a number of education groups around the country are studying whether boarding schools can help children who are failing, in trouble, poor or neglected, said Abell Foundation President Robert C. Embry Jr.

Other supporters include Circuit Court Judge David B. Mitchell, who handled juvenile cases for 11 years and who attended boarding school as a youth. He is an adviser to the Baraka School.

"Most of the youngsters we would seek to send are the ones that would come through the court, those who are basically functioning without parents and drifting through the system," he said. "I think an opportunity to study abroad would expose them to other things in the world besides their little corner or niche."

Voluntary participation

The Baraka School is seeking referrals from Baltimore's court and foster care systems, public schools and social service programs. Participation will be voluntary, requiring a guardian's consent and a summer orientation based at Boys' Latin twice weekly in which the applicants will be screened.

Some city parents and educators are opposed to programs that separate a child from his guardians, home and roots -- even if the child's background is troubled. They say wiser investments would be bolstering the family with health and counseling services, and improving schools with strong curricula and programs.

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