Kenya school to suspend operations

Baraka site faced tumult, questions about its finances

`A culmination of things'

Break gives time to consider site's mission, progress

April 15, 2000|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

The Baraka School in Kenya, a troubled educational experiment conceived as a way to provide a life-altering environment overseas for some of Baltimore's youths, is closing after four years, officials have announced.

The seventh- and eighth-grade school for boys, funded primarily by The Abell Foundation, will suspend operation in June because of questions about whether its mission is being achieved, insufficient financial assistance from Baltimore's public schools and other unspecified problems, said Judge David B. Mitchell, former Baraka board chairman.

The school's board of trustees decided in February to suspend operations at the site for one year.

Mitchell, who stepped down as chairman in February, denied the closing was connected to the December expulsion of eight students and the suspension of nine others. "The board of trustees felt it's necessary to suspend the operations of the school for a period of time in order to determine whether we're able to meet the mission that was established several years ago, in light of some continuing problems at the school," Mitchell said yesterday.

"At various times, we've been concerned that some issues presented by the students have not been clearly identified in the past, and as a result, there have been some problems with those students making the appropriate adjustment."

Neither parents nor former students could be reached for comment.

The school, about four hours north of Nairobi, will close after students -- who all were from Baltimore -- are excused for the summer on June 1, said Abell Foundation President Robert C. Embry Jr. The boys will return to Baltimore and resume their education in either private or public schools next fall, he said.

The closing means some of the students will not complete the institution's two-year program.

The announcement of the school's closing comes after several incidents last year. In one instance, two dozen students grew increasingly defiant and unruly in protesting the forced departure of three of the school's teachers and dorm supervisors.

Some faculty members are Kenyans.

A series of confrontations worsened to the point where a teacher was threatened with a scalpel, two counselors quit and students ganged up on the staff when a youth was restrained.

In a Nov. 30 letter to parents, Kate Walsh, the Baltimore program director, wrote: "It is impossible to adequately explain the atmosphere that has overtaken the school."

Mitchell said yesterday that no one incident led to the board's decision.

"It was a culmination of things," Mitchell said. "There were several things over the years that caused us to start questioning how we can be of service. If you're going to take a certain population of kids who have an extraordinary number of needs, how do you staff for those needs? We did have enough staff people, but sometimes the students presented challenges that even the people on staff were not able to address."

He said there are individual success stories among some of the boys who attended The Baraka School but that it "has not had the broader success initially envisioned."

The program's goal was to remove troubled children from Baltimore's streets and to provide them with an environment conducive to learning so they could enjoy successful high school careers. Some of the boys were performing at the second- or third-grade level when they arrived in Kenya, Mitchell said.

Only a small percentage of them failed to complete the program, Mitchell said.

The school was rife with problems when board members decided to suspend operations. Mitchell acknowledged yesterday it may never reopen.

"If it never reopens, sure, some people will say it's a failure, but that's not going to change my view of it at all," Mitchell said. "I'm actually very proud of what we were able to accomplish. I'm very proud of what the staff here and the staff there did, as well as what the students accomplished while they were there. These boys took on a very difficult challenge in their lives, and many of them succeeded in some ways adults could not."

About 80 Baltimore boys have attended the school in the past four years, Embry said. Tuition is about $13,000 per student per year, and the foundation provided more than 86 percent, or $11,200 per student. Baltimore schools provided $1,800 annually per student. In all, Abell has spent about $1.5 million on the program, Embry said.

Over the years, Abell officials have asked Baltimore schools to provide more money, even suggesting at one point they contribute 50 percent per child, Embry said.

Schools spokeswoman Vanessa Pyatt said yesterday that the amount of funding for Baraka students had not been determined but could come up on April 25 when the board votes on its budget.

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