Wall St. comes to Sandtown

Rules of life: The mainstream economy is not readily apparent in a poor West Baltimore neighborhood. But two big local firms hope to change that.

November 24, 2001|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,SUN STAFF

Maurice Nobles says he learned two things in class last week:

If he drops out of high school he'll "flip burgers" for a living.

College is expensive, but higher paychecks will more than make up the cost.

The lesson at the New Song Academy in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Sandtown is part of a program run by developer the Rouse Co. and mutual fund giant T. Rowe Price Group Inc..

Corporate volunteers come once a week to teach lessons on the economics of life. Students are urged to stay in school. They're taught to use a checkbook, fill out a job application, and, eventually, invest in the stock market.

They'll learn, according to their school principal, how mainstream America operates.

"They don't see the U.S. economy at work in their neighborhood," said Principal Susan Tibbels, who called the program a "blessing from heaven."

The students, said Tibbels, come from families with a median income of $10,000 and mostly headed by single mothers.

The area is one of the city's lead-paint poisoning hot spots.

And, she said, most of the students have seen someone killed or lost a family member to violence.

Nearly half of their peers in city public schools drop out.

The cinderblock walls of New Song shield the students from those realities for part of the day. It's there that school volunteers and workers, half of whom come from the community, try to steer pupils in another direction.

The impetus for the program came from Anthony W. Deering, chairman and chief executive of Rouse, which has been involved with the neighborhood for a decade.

During that time the Columbia company has contributed to a new school building, computers and reconstruction of homes in the area through Habitat for Humanity.

Deering came across a similar economics program while on a business trip in Chicago. The New Song materials were adapted from Junior Achievement lessons - minus references to tree-lined streets and abundant local merchants to which New Song kids might not relate.

Under the program, Rouse and Price donate $25,000 apiece to each new sixth-grade class, for seven years.

All the corporate money will be invested in the stock market by the students under Price's professional guidance, and when the students graduate from high school any gains beyond the original $50,000 investment will be used to finance scholarships for them - they're hoping for a few thousand dollars each.

The $50,000 principal sum from each graduating class will finance the program for the next sixth-grade class. New Song now has about 110 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. From ninth grade through the 12th grade, the students will attend other schools but return to New Song for the economics courses in the afternoon.

The school has been public for five years and was a private school for three years before that. The school operates within the regular school system, but a city initiative allows it to establish the curriculum and hire staff.

With the economics program only in its second year, there hasn't been enough time to gauge its effectiveness. But there is anecdotal evidence that it's having an impact.

Many parents are now seeking out high school and college courses for themselves - "a direct byproduct of the kids talking about it at home," said Tibbels, who lives a block from the school.

Some students have named "stockbroker" as a possible career, though basketball player is still far more common. They all want to go to college.

Those who teach the classes are optimistic.

"For me, we're proving there is nothing wrong with these children," said Margaret Mauro, a volunteer and executive director of the Rouse Co. Foundation, which is running the program. "With proper education and attention, they will succeed."

Since the program began, the students have developed a business plan and, during a visit to Rouse's Columbia offices, persuaded the company executives to provide startup money for a school store.

Back in the classroom, Jackie Hrabowski and Janice Kraft, two former teachers and now Price volunteers, are taking the students through a lesson exploring the relationship between education and future earnings.

To student Travon Hopkins, that means the importance of "not skipping school so you can get an education," he said.

"Even though it costs you money," added Nobles, rubbing his thumb and fingers together.

"And if you're not a high school graduate and you make $300 a week, is that a lot of money?" Hrabowski prods the class.

"No," the students chant.

The next class, on the cost of living, will be held Friday.

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