Against the odds, students succeed

School: St. Frances Academy, blooming in the shadow of the Maryland Penitentiary, helps struggling children turn their lives around.

February 02, 1999|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Sister John Francis Schilling proudly calls St. Frances Academy a second-chance school.

Some would call it a last-chance or a take-a-chance school.

Certainly, the tiny, urban, Roman Catholic high school has taken many chances that have paid off with students others wanted nothing to do with: youth from poor and troubled families, who have flunked out of public schools, who are street-smart, who have given up on themselves.

But St. Frances Academy -- at Chase Street and Brentwood Avenue near the Maryland Penitentiary in Baltimore -- is thriving.

In the past five years, it has doubled its enrollment to 260, gained local and national acclaim for its basketball teams and attracted nearly as much notice for sending 95 percent of its graduates to college and giving opportunities to kids who thought those came only on their neighborhood drug corners.

With full enrollment and a waiting list for ninth grade, St. Frances is undertaking a $10 million capital campaign for building improvements, tuition aid, salaries and a community center that would solidify its second mission -- to be a positive presence in the community of which it has been a part for more than 100 years.

"It's an extraordinary school," says Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, which pays the tuitions of several students there. "They are attuned to, and want, children who are struggling."

With the penitentiary near its back door and a barren, glass-strewn playground across from its front gate, St. Frances is a sanctuary in Johnston Square, just east of the Jones Falls Expressway. Inside its gate are swept walks and tidy gardens -- order, along with limits and expectations.

"We provide a structured environment for some students who don't have a structure at home," says Sister John Francis, who has been the coeducational school's president and principal for six years. "There's a great need to deal especially with young people who have troubled situations."

Started in 1828 by Mary Elizabeth Lange, who founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence the next year, the school opened as a place to teach the children of slaves to read -- then an illegal activity.

Now, St. Frances is the country's oldest Catholic high school with African-American roots. It is Baltimore's oldest Catholic high school, says Tom Nealis, its director of development.

Its 1870 building on Chase Street has been an orphanage, a convent and a boarding and day school for "women of color." In 1974, it became a coeducational high school, with its dormitories converted to classrooms.

St. Frances' students come from all over the metropolitan area, although many are from the impoverished blocks around the school. Nearly half qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, three-fourths are from single-parent homes and the majority are the first in their families to apply to college.

"The Oblate Sisters are doing the tough work willingly," says Ralph Moore, director of community services for Baltimore's Center for Poverty Solutions. "Some kids need more. The nuns have been willing to take that on and have achieved great success."

Five sisters and two Christian Brothers are among the school's staff of 25. The rest are lay people.

About 60 percent of the students pay the full tuition of $3,600 a year, though some need the support of several families to do so, says Nealis. Foundations, corporations, the Archdiocese of Baltimore and individuals contribute the rest.

The main requirements for admission are wanting to be there and understanding the demands of St. Frances -- attendance, preparation for class, passing grades, no drugs, no lies. "They set high standards, but they are loving standards," says Embry.

Says Sister John Francis, the only white member of the African-American Oblate congregation: "We're the Catholic school that takes kids that other Catholic schools reject."

Two examples:

Patrick Lee graduated from St. Frances in 1992 and from Salisbury State University last spring. Lee, who grew up on Eager Street behind the school with his father in prison, went to Southern High but flunked out. "I knew this was my last hope," he says of the academy, where at 26, he is employed to be a community organizer in its outreach program.

Aries Whitworth started at St. Frances in ninth grade but transferred to Baltimore's Carver High School in 10th because "I was used to a larger environment." But "nobody cared like they did here, and I started slipping," says Whitworth, who returned last year and is now a senior at St. Frances.

When students slip at St. Frances, someone is likely to grab them. Sister John Francis had, in fact, just stopped Whitworth in the hall to talk about her low grades. "There's no reason for those," the nun cautioned the girl, who wants to attend either Coppin State College or Morgan State University next year.

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