Parents fight for African school

Foundation says suspension a result of lack of city funds

April 22, 2000|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

Parents of students at the Baraka School in Kenya, upset over a decision that prohibits their children from completing the two-year program, have launched a fight to keep the school open.

At the very least, the parents say, they want the school to remain open for another year, enabling 17 first-year students to finish the two-year program.

A group of parents plans to attend Tuesday's school board meeting to ask leaders to dig deep to find more funding for the program, sponsored by the Abell Foundation and started four years ago.

On May 9, they plan to go back to the school board, armed with report cards from Baraka and notes from teachers detailing how well their sons are doing.

The school, located on the rural plains north of Nairobi, was conceived as a way to provide a life-altering educational environment overseas for Baltimore seventh- and eighth-grade boys -- some of whom had academic problems in public schools and were reading well below grade level. Abell Foundation officials confirmed last week their plans to suspend operations for a year when school lets out for the summer. The decision was made in February.

Foundation President Robert C. Embry Jr. said the school is closing because of a lack of funding from Baltimore schools. Baraka tuition is about $13,000 per student annually. Abell officials were hoping to get half of that from Baltimore but are receiving $1,800 for each student.

J. Tyson Tildon, school board chairman, said yesterday that officials can't afford to pay $6,000 per child.

"The amount of funding required is beyond our ability to supply at this point," Tildon said. Most city schools allot $4,000 to $5,000 per student, he said.

Baltimore Circuit Judge David B. Mitchell, former Baraka board chairman, said last week that funding is not the only reason for the closing. Officials want to step back and evaluate Baraka to determine whether it is accomplishing its mission, Mitchell said.

Parents are angry, saying their children have been misled. In addition to confronting school board officials, they also plan to meet with Embry.

"I'm mad because Abell Foundation told my child this would be a two-year journey, and he signed a contract," said Wanda Robinson, whose son Jarett has been in Kenya since the beginning of the fall semester. "What are they teaching children -- that it's OK to break a contract?"

Robinson and about 15 parents or relatives of Baraka students met Thursday night at the Abell Foundation to discuss the imminent closing and their efforts to thwart it. The meeting was rife with emotion, as relatives shared the impact the program has had on their children. One woman broke down in tears while discussing what Baraka has done for her nephew.

Antwanne Best said he could talk at length about the difference the school has made in the life of his younger brother, Aaron Frazier. And Vera McAphee said her son, Ryan, used to have trouble getting motivated to read books but already has read 21 since arriving in Kenya. She and others acknowledge Baraka has had its problems over the years -- including the expulsion in December of eight students and the suspension of nine others -- but insist it is worthwhile and should remain open.

"My gut is that, if they close it, I don't think they will reopen it," said Deloris Brockington, whose grandson, Michael Brockington, 12, is a seventh-grader at Baraka. "But we're hoping our efforts will make a difference."

Brockington, Robinson and others said they think problems at the school -- more so than inadequate funding from Baltimore officials -- led to the board's decision.

"I suspected it right after the [December] incident when some of the boys were sent back home," Robinson said. "There were talks and things of that nature, but we were hoping and praying that it wouldn't close. I heard the board was meeting in February, and I figured that would probably put a damper on things, but we never heard anything from the staff."

Robinson said parents received letters last month from Kenya notifying them the school was suspending operations for a year.

"Being a Baraka parent, I knew about some of the incidents," Robinson said.

Last year, a series of confrontations between staff and students 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.

The families don't plan to return their children to Baltimore schools but instead are considering private schools such as Piney Woods in Mississippi -- a coeducational institution -- or The School at Church Farm in Pennsylvania.

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