Out of city crime Kenya: At-risk Baltimore boys depart for East Africa this weekend as the inaugural class of the Baraka School, designed to address students' educational, cultural and other needs.

September 21, 1996|By Michael James and Marilyn McCraven | Michael James and Marilyn McCraven,SUN STAFF

For 21 at-risk Baltimore City public middle school boys, the school year officially starts Monday -- in rural Kenya.

The youths, who are flying to the East African country this weekend accompanied by chaperons, were selected from 45 applicants for the inaugural class of the Baraka School, a program that promises a life-transforming experience far from the crime and degradation of Baltimore streets.

"We're not taking them on a vacation. They are going there to learn -- to come back better than they were," said Eric Rowe, 25, who is postponing graduate studies in education policy at the University of Maryland College Park to be one of four Baraka teachers.

Transporting these inner-city youths to another continent for boarding school is said to have been the suggestion of George L. Small, a retired Baltimore businessman who owns a vast cattle ranch in Kenya's highlands, where the school has been built.

With the support of the city schools superintendent and the Abell Foundation, organizers have recruited students, hired staff and created a nine-month program designed to address the educational, athletic, cultural, social and other needs of the students.

These activities were done under the auspices of Elimu Inc., which was established by Baltimore lawyer Keefe Clemons to found the school. In Swahili, elimu means education and baraka means blessing.

Clemons said the program should not be viewed as "any attempt to make any comment about what educational opportunities are available here. We view this as another opportunity that should be available to these boys."

Taking the boys away from their families for a school so far from home gave pause to many local educators and parents. But organizers say the participating youths are highly motivated.

A rigorous schedule is planned for the youths that will account for most of their waking hours, said Rowe, who will share house-parent duties at the youths' dormitory with his wife, Sherrie, 26.

An eight-hour school day will be followed by daily hourlong soccer games, dinner, some free time, then mandatory homework sessions at the institution that was constructed recently on a 150-acre farm.

The six-week orientation program held at Boys Latin this summer was rigorous, too, helping organizers determine the best candidates.

"It helped to see how they would adapt to a new environment, new experiences," Rowe said.

Almost all of the boys leaving this weekend come from very poor, crime-troubled areas of Baltimore.

The boys and their parents say they hope the Kenya trip will give them a new perspective on African-American culture.

"They will be away from all the stigmas that are bringing down the African-American race," said Hilda Lloyd, a single parent whose 12-year-old son, Kristopher, is leaving tomorrow for the Baraka School.

"It would benefit my son to not see the crime for eight or nine months. He won't have to see the drive-bys, the prostitution, the people shooting dope."

Lloyd, a student at Morgan State University, lives with her son in an apartment in a blighted neighborhood at Lafayette and Pennsylvania avenues. Kristopher told her he wants a chance "to see what the motherland is all about."

Exposed to crime

His mother used to take him to an indoor skating rink near their home. But they stopped going after several shootings at or near the skating rink sent people diving for cover.

Kristopher said that his 20-year-old cousin, Darren Day, was shot to death in a Baltimore neighborhood in 1994. The motive for the shooting is unknown.

"I would like to get away, to just go somewhere," Kristopher said. "When I go over there, I'm not going to see gangs walking around or fights on the street and when I come back, I can teach everybody about what it was like."

Kristopher is a sixth-grader at Booker T. Washington Middle School. He said he wants to be a lawyer when he grows up.

Back-to-school list

In Southwest Baltimore, 12-year-old Derick Chana was getting ready for his trip to Kenya by buying items he doesn't usually need for school: a canteen, binoculars and camping boots, all items that the average student will need for the field trips from the Kenya school.

"It's a different kind of back-to-school shopping list," said Derick's stepfather, Elvis Shields, a food service worker.

The family lives on South Smallwood Street. The neighborhood isn't rife with shootings, drugs and other trouble, Shields said. But it's troubling enough.

'A great opportunity'

"I'd like to see him be able to get away from crime and drug traffic," Shields said. "This is a great opportunity for these kids. I'm looking forward to thinking about him being in an area where he won't have to worry about something like walking down the street."

Derick wants to be a veterinarian when he grows up and is looking forward to seeing elephants, rhinoceroses and other wild animals in Kenya.

Return trip?

Upon completing the nine-month school year, school officials will decide -- based on performance -- which students will be invited back for a second and final year.

Next fall, the returning students will be joined by another group of 21 seventh-graders, organizers said.

Baraka graduates will be encouraged to apply to the citywide high schools, Rowe said.

Pub Date: 9/21/96

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