School finds success amid life's worries

Devotion: The work at St. Frances is being noticed by those near and far.

April 11, 2005|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

At St. Frances Academy, don't think of scary nuns that rap knuckles for misbehavior.

The Roman Catholic high school in East Baltimore uses counseling and extra attention to help its students overcome the problems of city life and succeed academically.

So students such as 15- year-old Chanaye Jackson come to St. Frances with average grades and find ways to excel.

About one-third of the students, including Chanaye, receive some kind of counseling once a week. Chanaye lost both parents when she was young, and a good friend was recently fatally stabbed, so she joined the school's grief and loss group for help.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption on Page 1A Monday misstated the name of a student at St. Frances Academy. She is Jade Brace.

"I think it really did help me," she said. "Nothing can replace the love you get here." Chanaye said she is now doing well because the sisters have faith in her.

That kind of academic success at the 325-student school run by the nation's oldest order of African-American nuns is getting noticed.

Camille Cosby, wife of entertainer Bill Cosby, announced last week that she is donating $2 million for an endowment that will provide full scholarships for 16 students each year.

Cosby - who attended a Washington elementary school that was run by the Oblate Sisters of Providence - says she was impressed that although about 70 percent of the students at St. Frances live in poverty, 90 percent go to college, a much higher rate than that of most of Baltimore's public high schools. And the school's daily attendance runs at about 98 percent.

Academics and beyond

Today, St. Frances is the only school in the nation run by the Oblates, an order of African-American nuns founded more than 175 years ago in Baltimore by a Haitian immigrant, Mother Mary Elizabeth Lange.

The school doesn't offer the fancy curriculum or unusual discipline that have been tried with some success at other schools across the nation. Teachers stick to the basics of small classes, discipline and focused instruction.

The students, who look more straight-laced than their counterparts in the rest of the city, wear uniforms of white shirts, khakis and red sweaters. There aren't any low-hanging pants or long T-shirts on the boys.

The Oblates have always offered warmth and hospitality to people, said Sister John Francis Schilling, the school's principal, and that is what attracted her to the order many years ago.

The order's mission extends beyond the school to its East Baltimore neighborhood. It built a $5 million community center and school gymnasium a few years ago. Next door is a new brick foster care center, named for Mother Mary Elizabeth. And some of the sisters live in six renovated rowhouses across the street, sandwiched between vacant houses.

Jerry Coates, supply department manager for Claymore C. Sieck Co., said the Oblate Sisters have been a stabilizing influence in the neighborhood, keeping drug dealers away and initiating community projects.

A school counselor has started a support group for grandmothers raising teenagers. One sister created a small green area with benches. A community garden and playground sprouted out of vacant lots.

"Those sisters walk in this community any time of day or night and never have a problem," Coates said. "They are held in high esteem."

The wholesale floral company has developed a partnership with the school, employing a couple of students during the summer, providing scholarships for students and making donations to the basketball teams.

"I think that is what makes us different. We are not a school that puts up fences," Sister John Francis said. "I have a standing offer that anyone in the neighborhood who wants to come to the school can."

That means some neighborhood children do not have to pay the $4,300-a-year tuition.

Financial struggles

St. Frances struggles to pay its bills. Though Sister John Francis is grateful for the publicity that has followed the Cosby gift, she worries that it will make potential donors think the school doesn't need money.

Yet the school could use new science laboratories and many renovations.

Each year, she said, there is a major gap between tuition and spending, which must be made up through donations.

Nine years ago, when Thomas J. Nealis came to the school as development director, he used to worry about the persistent tight budgets.

"I used to get stressed out," Nealis said, and ask, `Sister, how are we going to meet payroll?'"

"She would say, `Providence will provide.' And I would say, `OK, I will tell that to our debtors,'" Nealis said.

Even this spring, he said, they will have a struggle to make it to the end of the year.

Educational history

Nevertheless, the school has flourished over the years. Two alumni from the Class of 1983, having read about the gift from Cosby, decided to come to the school Wednesday during a visit from their home in Atlanta.

Melissa and Rodney Rodgers met at the school as ninth-graders years ago and have been together since.

After a tour of the school, they knocked on the door of one of the houses across the street. A sister answered and remembered them.

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