School offers a second chance Hannah More poised for major expansion

March 21, 1997|By Ronnie Greene | Ronnie Greene,SUN STAFF

She's just 17 but has battled a lifetime of burdens, shuffling through 25 foster homes, using her fists when the world made her fume.

Yet Shanay has matured fast in Hannah More School, a Reisterstown day school that aims to turn emotionally troubled young people into emotionally mature adults. Now a mentor to younger students, she's senior class president and preparing to graduate.

Like Shanay, her school is poised to prosper: Hannah More is gearing up for a $4.4 million expansion.

The Baltimore County campus, with 100 students, will house 150 by next year. A middle school wing will rise, along with a career technology education center and expanded dining hall. Another 25 to 34 staff will be hired, among them a "transition coordinator" to link students with local businesses.

The growth is backed by a mix of private sources and public agencies, notably the county government.

"It's a tiptop, well-run school," said County Councilman T. Bryan McIntire, a Republican who represents the area. "I'm amazed with what they can do."

Founded in 1978, Hannah More is a private school for seriously emotionally disabled adolescents 11 to 21, referred from public schools in the city and Baltimore, Anne Arundel, Howard, Harford and Carroll counties.

Nearly half the students live below the national poverty level, and six of 10 are diagnosed with a disruptive behavior disorder.

Just 15 percent live with their biological mother and father.

"They're students just like any other students in school, but who rTC have difficulty in dealing with day-to-day emotions," said Principal Michael Kerins. "That can be anything from withdrawn to explosive.

"Basically, Hannah More becomes an anchor."

An anchor for teen-agers such as Shanay, who tells her story plainly and powerfully.

Three years after coming to the school "always wanting to fight," she has put the conflicts behind, the future ahead.

"My determination for school is because no one in my family has ever made it past the seventh grade," she said. "I wasn't going to let anyone hold me back."

She looks out for others, such as the "little sister" she unofficially took under her wing.

"When I first started talking to her, I saw myself a couple of years ago," Shanay said. "But I tell her, 'Sometimes, it takes the bigger person to walk away.' "

Susan Bellamy, Shanay's school social worker, said the teen-ager has "blossomed" while learning to trust people.

"That trust has enabled her to develop empathy for others," Bellamy said. "This kind of school has really been her stability in life."

Students stay for at least a year, sometimes up to three. The idea is to move them back to public school, or if they stay, that they graduate from Hannah More.

"The majority of our kids come from emotionally dysfunctional families, not traditional middle class American families," said School President Mark Waldman. "The majority of these kids, if ++ they're put in the right environment, really can be successful."

Jada's success story

Case in point: Jada, 15, who entered a year ago fighting inner turmoil fueled by a troubled home life. Just a child herself, she was taking care of a younger sibling.

"I didn't go to school," she said. "I was depressed. I had a lot of anger, and that's what I kept inside."

Now she speaks with a maturity beyond her years.

"You always have someone to talk to at Hannah More," Jada said. "They made me realize I can't do everything myself. I learned that I can't get mad about things I can't control."

She plans to finish this school year, then return to public school.

In many ways, Hannah More is a typical school, with notices announcing the prom and listing honor roll students.

Still, it offers attention not always possible in bustling public schools. Each class has seven to nine students, a teacher and teacher assistant. Nearby, there's a resource room with four counselors available at all times.

The budget last year was $4.2 million, with $3.9 million coming in tuition paid by local school districts and the state, and $300,000 from private sources. The school declined to release salaries of its president and principal.

Its $4.4 million expansion has won support of the county, which authorized $2.7 million in tax-exempt revenue bonds for that portion and another $1.15 million for a gymnasium that eventually will rise on school grounds leased from the county. The bonds are structured so the county doesn't assume any debt.

Beyond that, Councilman McIntire has proposed a $30,000 Community Conservation grant to get the construction rolling.

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