Tucked into a narrow street in one of Baltimore's most embattled neighborhoods, the nearly century-old St. Katharine School stands as an oasis for more than 300 children among the dilapidated east-side rowhouses and open-air drug markets.
The three-story school on Rose Street has plenty of pupils, but not much money -- there's no cafeteria, no gymnasium and no playground.
Of the 303 pupils in prekindergarten through eighth grade enrolled there, most come from city families who live at or below the poverty level and struggle to pay the $3,500 tuition. Most couldn't do it without the help of a scholarship program set up by the Archdiocese of Baltimore and funded by local businesses and foundations.
Called Partners in Excellence, the program was started in 1996 by Cardinal William H. Keeler to educate city children and keep the Catholic schools open in those neighborhoods.
"It was a way of providing children with a means of succeeding," Keeler said.
Now, archdiocese officials want to expand the program by adding more businesses, foundations and individuals as scholarship sponsors so that more students can be helped.
"We need to raise $2 million a year to keep the program going," said Thomas Sonni, director of development for the archdiocese. "But our goal is $3 million."
The partners program helps pay tuition for students at 17 city elementary, middle and high schools, where 3,500 students are enrolled. But the program is able to provide financial assistance -- averaging about $1,000 per student -- to only about half of the students who qualify.
Sonni said most families sacrifice to keep their children in the schools because they want the students to receive a good education in a safe environment.
"We have the solution," Sonni said. "But we need to reach out to the community for their support."
When Keeler sought to start the program, he went to Raymond "Chip" Mason, chairman of the board and chief executive officer of Legg Mason Inc., a financial services company.
Mason said he started calling on companies to help support the struggling schools when the archdiocese made a commitment to repair and upgrade the outdated buildings. The goal was to get the schools to break even.
"The archdiocese wants to raise more money to keep the children at the schools," Mason said. "It's a wonderful program that just needs more funding."
The schools that participate have achieved high marks: the average attendance rate is 94 percent; 98 percent of the students graduate; and 92 percent go on to college. Some of the schools have waiting lists.
St. Katharine's principal, Kirk Gaddy Sr., believes the Catholic schools are making a difference in poor and neglected neighborhoods. He also believes that without funding from the program, most of the inner-city Catholic schools would be closed.
"We are trying to lift them out of poverty by providing the children with a good education," said Gaddy, who grew up in East Baltimore and attended Catholic schools and colleges. "Education is the only way to change the cycle of poverty. The schools are really important to the communities they serve."
Gaddy is part administrator, part fund-raiser and part counselor. He has made St. Katharine's the center of the Collington Square neighborhood and has raised money to start a family health program and to fund after-school activities.
He expects his students to do their best, and in return, he writes letters of recommendation for admission to Catholic high schools, the city's top schools and to some private schools offering scholarships.
Father Charles Hall Elementary School in West Baltimore's Upton neighborhood also participates in Partners in Excellence. The school has 157 students who pay $3,100 a year in tuition.
Principal Kathleen Filippelli said the school opened in 1890 to serve African-Americans, but it is now multiracial, with African-American, Hispanic and white pupils from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade.
She said the children learn not only academics, but also respect and kindness to others, manners, and sharing as part of their faith-based education.
She pointed to the pile of blankets and stacks of canned goods in the hallway that pupils brought in. The blankets will be distributed to the homeless and the food will go next door to St. Peter Claver Church on Fremont Avenue for the needy.
"The students also collected gloves, scarves and hats for children in the community," Filippelli said.
She is proud of the way her pupils share with the community, especially since 87 percent qualify for the federal lunch program.
Filippelli also spends part of her time raising money for the school. For fund-raisers, the school sells raffle tickets several times a year and the children and their families sell candy and pizza.
"Our families really support the school," Filippelli said.