Teaching to spark a change

Urban Chronicle

School: The new Sisters Academy believes the education of girls can help improve impoverished Southwest Baltimore neighborhoods.

October 28, 2004|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

THE IDEA FOR the Sisters Academy of Baltimore didn't spring from last winter's financial crisis in the city's public schools; planning for the all-girls Roman Catholic middle school was well under way by then.

Nor did it stem from this month's spate of arsons - and a double shooting - at city middle and high schools; the school quietly opened last month with its first class of 22 fifth-graders.

Rather, it came from four congregations of nuns, who believe that the education of girls from poor families can help lift up impoverished neighborhoods of often-overlooked Southwest Baltimore - though recent events make it seem more needed and welcome than ever.

"I wish there would be some way to share this experience or spread it," said Sister Delia Dowling, co-founder of the school with Sister Suzanne Hall.

The school is located temporarily in a renovated wing of St. Clement Academy, a shuttered Catholic school in Lansdowne just over the city line in Baltimore County.

Like the more established all-boys St. Ignatius Loyola Academy in Mount Vernon and the co-ed Mother Seton Academy in Fells Point, it is part of the Nativity Educational Centers Network, which emphasizes small classes, extended days and school years, and tuition-free education of low-income students. It is one of 55 such schools nationwide, but one of seven that serve only girls.

Although the differences between Sisters Academy and some public schools are obvious - the low student-to-staff ratio, and the attentiveness and discipline of the pupils - Sister Suzanne said she doesn't "want to set up dichotomies with the public schools."

"We see ourselves as helping all of the service providers, including the public schools, in bringing up the quality of life in [Southwest Baltimore]," she said.

Pupils' views

Some of the pupils are less reticent in pointing out some obvious differences.

"The only thing about my old school that I miss is the teachers," said Shantrice King. "There were a lot of fights that were happening. Here it's nonviolent."

Shantrice said she had trouble with multiplication when she came but that she got individual help, and spouted off answers in an impromptu quiz. "Now, it's easy for me," she said.

"The difference is we have more books in the library," said Deara Parker.

"At my old school, we had gym, not team sports," said Danielle Hipkins.

"If you don't get something, they give it to you step-by-step," said Shalia Hyman.

"The biggest difference is there aren't any boys," she added. "That's good because all the girls, you get to talk about girl stuff. It's bad because I don't get to play football."

The girls introduce themselves to a visitor, extending their hands and welcoming them to Sisters Academy - something they've been taught in their life-skills training.

Their enthusiasm extends to the classroom.

"In math, if it's something new, they get excited," said Sister Virginia Brune, the school's master teacher and one of a dozen full- and part-time staff members. "In science, you can't answer the question fast enough."

Financing education

The idea for a new middle school came from parents in the area, which includes neighborhoods like Poppleton, Franklin Square and Westport. In the initial class, 19 are African-Americans, and three come from two-parent homes. The average family income is $20,300.

Sisters Academy's finances include an operating budget this year of about $375,000, which is made up of contributions from the four orders of nuns involved with the school, foundation grants and $5,000 pupil sponsorships from groups and individuals.

To say the school was frugal in keeping down its start-up costs is an understatement. The books for the library were donated. The girls' school clothes were bought from a bankrupt Philadelphia uniform-maker. The hand-held bell that is rung to announce the beginning and end of recess comes from a closed Catholic school.

Plans for the future

School officials plan to add classes of about two dozen pupils in each succeeding year, for a total of about 80-90 students in four grades. They are also seeking a permanent site in southwest, making Sisters Academy more convenient for pupils to get to and more a part of the community it serves.

School officials say they can make a difference, in the lives of the students and the area.

"They can make a tremendous impact" said Sister Suzanne. "Even if they make an impact in their homes or on their block, it can make a difference. If we didn't believe that, we wouldn't be going to all this trouble."

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