College campus offers education in perseverance

After much debate and some opposition, Sojourner-Douglass College to open in Edgewater.

July 20, 2005|By Grant Huang | Grant Huang,SUN STAFF

After a 2 1/2 -year struggle that included a court case against its construction by local residents, Sojourner-Douglass College is finally opening its new, high-tech campus in Edgewater.

The college, headquartered in Baltimore, has had an Annapolis location for nearly 10 years, but school officials say the student body has outgrown the old facility, which consisted of a single floor in an office building on Old Solomons Island Road. That facility is now closed, and its staff has moved to the new campus, where classes are scheduled to start Monday.

"Sojourner-Douglass fills such an important niche," said Glenn F. Ivey, the state's attorney for Prince George's County. Delivering the keynote address at an appreciation luncheon as part of last week's opening celebrations, Ivey praised the school for its mission of focusing on adult education.

"Fifty-two percent of black males in Baltimore City are in jail, on parole, or on probation," he said. "If you are coming out of there, you are not going to Harvard. Harvard is not built for them, but we are."

Ivey said traditional colleges are tailored to accept recent high school graduates, but were not built for adults with kids who work full time or adults resuming their education.

"But [Sojourner-Douglass] understands if you don't get it right the first time," Ivey said. "They understand if you're figuring it out a little later than you should have."

The students understand, too - they often see the value of education more clearly than their traditional counterparts, faculty members say.

"Many American youths see college as a time to party," said Professor Henry Driver, a retired electronics engineer who teaches math, statistics, and Spanish at Sojourner-Douglass. "On the other hand, adult students are very easy to teach. The fact that they go to class after eight hours of work shows you they are dedicated, and when you have dedicated students, teaching is a joy."

The school operates on a trimester schedule that enables students to graduate in three years. Tuition for one full-time academic year is $6,190.

Built at a cost of $2.5 million, the new campus is located off Stepneys Lane near Routes 2 and 214. The one-story, 16,000- square-foot building has 12 state-of-the-art classrooms. It is expected to serve as many as 500 students.

The campus also features a library, a lounge with a skylight and multiple computer labs. There is also a day care, supervised by child care professionals, that children can attend while their parents are in class.

All of the facilities, with the exception of the day care center, can be used by area residents for free as long as it doesn't conflict with classes, said Charlestine Fairley, director of the new campus.

Some residents have been in conflict with the college. A few months after a ceremonial groundbreaking at the site in December 2002, the campus came under fire from a vocal segment of the Edgewater community.

In April 2003, members of a conservancy board representing the nearby, upscale planned community of South River Colony petitioned the county zoning office to shut down the campus.

In April last year, South River Colony's property owners association filed a lawsuit against Sojourner-Douglass, citing concerns about increased traffic in an already busy area and a 1988 covenant they had with the developer at the time as a basis for their legal argument.

The covenant states that the 5.7 acres upon which the campus stands could only be used for educational facilities "in conjunction with" the Anne Arundel County Board of Education.

At the time, supporters of the college said the complaints masked a racial motive in the opposition's desire to force a relocation of the campus. Edgewater is a predominantly white, middle-upper class area. Sojourner-Douglass is a historically black college. Sojourner-Douglass officials played down the idea of racial prejudice last week.

"I didn't give much credence to that idea when it was suggested, and I don't want the community to be polarized over this," Fairley said.

She and other school administrators have worked to address the complaints with the assistance of their developer. First, they completed a county-required traffic study, which concluded that the campus' construction would not significantly affect local traffic.

Then, to satisfy the terms of the covenant, they coordinated with the county Board of Education to make the campus facilities available for high school tutoring and outreach programs during the day, since most of the school's college courses are held in the evenings to accommodate the adult student body.

As a result, a county Circuit Court judge ruled in favor of Sojourner-Douglass in August.

"Evidently it was a handful of people," Fairley said. "We've been well-received by all the members of the community I've spoken to. I have never seen anyone with the opposition come here."

Attempts to reach representatives of the South River Colony homeowners association were unsuccessful.

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