McDonogh lends a hand to its sister school in La.

October 06, 2005|By LIZ F. KAY | LIZ F. KAY,SUN REPORTER

Days after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast region, students at McDonogh School emptied more than $1,000 in change from their pockets into a bucket. Last week, they raised money by selling light-up buttons depicting the school mascot. Next Monday, lower-school children will start collecting coins in water cooler jugs.

Kids and adults all over the world have contributed money and resources to help storm victims. But the students at McDonogh, by raising money for a school outside New Orleans, are also bringing together for the first time two institutions with a common heritage.

The school in Owings Mills and the one in Gretna, La., can trace their origins to a bequest from Baltimore native John McDonogh Jr.

"It's a shame that it's taken a hurricane to bring us together in such a formal manner," said Assistant Headmaster Brian McBride.

Despite their common history, the schools appear to be very different today - the 1,288 kindergartners through 12th-graders at McDonogh in Maryland attend classes on a nearly 800-acre campus. Students can pay up to $18,700 for tuition, and some older students pay more to board there during the week.

McDonogh 26 in Gretna, La., is a public elementary school in Jefferson Parish, across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. Ninety percent of the approximately 270 children who had enrolled this year came from low-income families.

There is at least one similarity, however. Both schools honor McDonogh one day each year by laying flowers at a memorial to him. Students at McDonogh School in Maryland visit his grave, moved to the campus in 1945, on Founder's Day each fall. The superintendent of schools in Jefferson Parish, Diane Roussel, plans to join them for the first time for this year's event Oct. 14.

People from both states say they are glad they found each other.

"It shows how we are brothers and sisters, almost, because of the legacy that we have," Diane A. Nowik, principal of the Louisiana school, said by telephone.

"It's really cool that we have a sister school now," said Alison Sher, a 17-year-old senior from Lutherville.

McDonogh was born in Baltimore in 1779 and moved to New Orleans in 1800 as a 20-year-old, said Frayda Salkin, the Maryland school's archivist and a parent of a former student. She has traveled to New Orleans to research McDonogh's history there.

The businessman and plantation owner, who had extensive real estate holdings, drew up his will in 1838. In addition to freeing his slaves, he divided the bulk of his estate between Baltimore and New Orleans to educate children.

After his death in 1850, the will was contested, and with the turmoil of the Civil War, it took more than 20 years to settle his estate, Salkin said. Each bequest, worth approximately $750,000 when they were paid out, was equivalent to more than $30 million in today's dollars.

"I think people were shocked to find out that he had left all that money for this purpose," Salkin said.

By that time, Baltimore had a public school system, but McDonogh's will called for the purchase of "between 300 and 3,000 acres" outside of Baltimore for a school farm for poor boys. A board appointed by city officials purchased the 835-acre property in 1872, Salkin said, and children first enrolled for free the next year.

In New Orleans, the money was used to build about 40 public schools in New Orleans and surrounding suburbs that bore his name, Salkin said. Some have closed, but a small number remain. And residents in some sections of the New Orleans area successfully lobbied to remove his name from schools because he was a slave owner.

McDonogh believed in educating slaves and offering them religion, Salkin said. He was also part of the American Colonization Society, a group that helped former slaves resettle in West Africa.

In his will, McDonogh stated he wanted the schools he created to be free and open to poor students of "both sexes" and "all castes of color."

"For him to have the thought of not only educating white students but `all castes of color,' I think, is an amazement ... for that time," Salkin said. However, "because it was the South, that was not going to happen at that point."

Neither the Louisiana nor Maryland schools were desegregated until after 1959, Salkin said.

The Owings Mills school began charging tuition in the 1920s, although some students receive need-based financial assistance - more than $2.5 million this year, said Lynn McKain, the Baltimore County school's director of public relations.

McKain said the fundraising for students in Louisiana fits one of John McDonogh Jr.'s "12 rules for living," which he wrote when he was 25: "Study in the course of your life to do the greatest possible amount of good."

"This to us is doing the greatest possible amount of good," she said.

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