A new vision for urban education

Plan: Coppin's president wants to transform a former orphanage into a free public boarding school.

November 17, 2003|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

The more than century-old brick building looks like an Ivy League dorm, with octagonal turrets and grand stone arches. But the windows are shattered, liquor bottles nose from scraggly weeds in the yard, and the words "Hebrew Orphan Asylum" loom above the entrance.

The haunting landmark on Baltimore's west side was once a well-respected institution for Jewish children from "broken families," where they received a good education and housing after one or both of their parents died.

Decades after its closing in 1923, the asylum may open its doors to children again, this time as a free boarding school for city students in grades seven through 12, many of whom also come from struggling single-parent families.

Stanley F. Battle, president of Coppin State College, is working with the founders of the nation's only urban public boarding school, the SEED School of Washington, D.C., to study the possibility of opening a similar school in Baltimore.

Although still in an early phase, the concept has won preliminary support from Mayor Martin O'Malley, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., city school board Chairwoman Patricia L. Welch and other top officials. Who will pay for the project, however, remains a difficult question - especially in light of the school system's financial woes.

The boarding school would cost millions to launch and perhaps $24,000 per student annually to operate, and the city and state officials who are expressing support for the idea have not yet been asked for - or committed - any money. But as a start, the state gave Coppin State $800,000 this year to buy the derelict building at 731 Ashburton St., which is part of the former Lutheran Hospital complex.

O'Malley said the idea of a public boarding school is so valuable that he would consider helping to pay for the project. "It's a good concept. Especially where at-risk kids are concerned, too often we allow drug dealers to do a better job of mentoring than we do," he said. "To create this school in the context of a historically black college would be a very encouraging environment."

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele said he and the governor have met with Battle to talk about the plan, and they are generally supportive, although the crucial details about funding have not been worked out. "This is an idea that is long overdue," Steele said. "It's innovative, out-of-the-box thinking. It's about time that our universities get engaged in helping with the educational responsibilities in the community."

But Sam Stringfield, vice chairman of the city school board, which would have to approve the school's charter, warned: "I think in the current economic situation, I would say it's a safe bet that the city school board cannot afford such a thing."

Battle's vision is to create for poor and middle-income public school students a college preparatory boarding school like Choate Rosemary Hall in Wallingford, Conn., or Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., although not as exclusive. His would be a charter school that would house perhaps 200 middle and high school students. The goal would be to serve average public school students, selected through a lottery, not just high-achievers or troubled children, Battle said.

The focus would be to create a better living environment for scholarship than the drug dealing, poverty and chaos that many city students often face in their neighborhoods.

"Looking at urban schools all around the country, we can see that obviously what we've been doing has not been working," Battle said. "Children need a supportive, communal environment for education, and we are looking to provide protection and support 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Coppin State has a successful track record in running public elementary schools, adopting the once-troubled Rosemont Elementary School, at 2777 Presstman St., five years ago and helping to significantly boost its reading and math scores, Battle said.

The boarding school would be run by Coppin in cooperation with the SEED School of Washington. The SEED School, which opened in 1998 with 40 seventh-graders, has grown to 310 seventh- through 12th-graders and has about 30 teachers and 30 additional staff members, who take care of the dormitory and provide meals, gym classes, tutoring and sometimes clothing, said Eric Adler, co-founder of the school.

The SEED School's organizers succeeded in persuading Congress and Washington's City Council to provide it with about $24,000 per student annually, more than twice the $9,000 a year allocated for most public school students in the city. The school was able to persuade the government to pay the extra amount in part by arguing that society would benefit by creating a sheltered environment for good children from tough neighborhoods, Adler said.

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