City school serving the poor receives $2 million donation

Camille Cosby's gift going to Baltimore's St. Frances

April 05, 2005|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Camille Cosby, the entertainer's wife who attended a school in Washington run by the Oblate Sisters of Providence, is giving $2 million to the small East Baltimore high school operated by the country's oldest order of black nuns.

"It's a tremendous gift, and we're extremely grateful," said Sister John Francis Schilling, principal of St. Frances Academy. "We've been on a shoestring budget for so long, it's almost second nature."

The donation, announced yesterday, will be used to create an endowment that will pay the tuition for 16 students a year in perpetuity, Sister Francis said.

The 325-student school, around the corner from the Baltimore Detention Center, was founded in 1828 to educate the children of slaves and has maintained a tradition of serving poor communities.

The school regularly stretches its meager budget or holds fund-raisers to help families that cannot afford the full tuition of $6,300 or students whose guardians unexpectedly die. That has been the case with two students this school year.

Cosby, who attended the now-defunct St. Cyprian's School for six years as a child in Washington, decided to make the contribution - the school's largest ever - because she was so impressed by St. Frances Academy's academic record, her spokesman said.

Although more than 70 percent of St. Frances' students come from families who live below the poverty line, 90 percent of the school's seniors are admitted to college. By contrast, 58 percent of seniors in city public schools were accepted by colleges last year, according to the Maryland Department of Education.

"If we are looking for solutions to the failure of our schools to educate our children, we would be well served by studying and replicating what St. Frances Academy is doing," Cosby said in a statement. Her husband, actor and comedian Bill Cosby, has been outspoken on urban education issues.

The school has small class sizes, a rigorous curriculum and counseling for students who need anger management or counseling for such things as bereavement. With Sister Francis as principal, the school has more than doubled its enrollment since 1993.

"It's safe and it's structured," said Desmond Thomas, a sophomore who was glad to hear of Cosby's gift because it would help more students be able to attend St. Frances.

Thomas J. Nealis, a St. Frances administrator who helped write a request for funds to Cosby, said the $2 million will make a tremendous difference.

"As an inner-city high school that serves at-risk kids, we always need more, and we'll never have enough because there are so many problems that arise. We just have so many needs," said Nealis, the director of development and academy relations.

Cosby became a patron of the school decades ago because of a longtime friend, Sister Mary Alice Chineworth, who headed the Oblate Sisters as the order's superior-general from 1989 to 1993. In the late 1980s, Cosby donated $200,000 to St. Frances, the only school owned and operated by the Catonsville-based Oblate Sisters, who have 95 members.

Cosby's interest was revived in July after the sisterhood invited her to help celebrate its 175th anniversary.

Sister Francis said Cosby's contribution is the first step in the school's goal of raising $5 million to create 40 endowed scholarships. Interest earned on the $2 million Cosby donated will pay the tuition for 16 Camille Cosby scholars each year.

"If we had the scholarships, that would change the face of things," said Sister Francis, adding that it has been a challenge to find ways to help students afford the tuition. A board member recently began finding summer jobs for some of the school's neediest students, who devote half of their earnings to tuition.

St. Frances Academy officials are trying to raise $5 million to make capital improvements at the building on East Chase Street, part of which was built in the 1870s.

"Providence provides." Sister Francis said. "We just have to wait for it to provide."

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