What works: In Baltimore, one school performs miracles

April 01, 2007|By Leonard Pitts Jr.

Consider this East Baltimore neighborhood.

Words tumble to mind by way of description. Words such as desolate. Words such as tough. Words such as hard and mean and grim and sad. Words such as dead.

Bail bonds and liquor stores are what passes for industry here. Ragged rowhouses, many boarded and abandoned, crowd one another like strangers in a bus shelter.

Now consider the girl who goes to school here. Danielle Branche, 16, is tiny, has a pretty smile, and speaks with self-possession about her dreams. "When I graduate, I want to go to either Antioch College in Ohio or Point Park University in Pittsburgh, and I want to get my bachelor's in both dance and business management so I'll be able to open my own dance company."

Consider the neighborhood. Consider the child. If they seem not to fit one another, well, that's the point. Welcome to St. Frances Academy on East Chase Street. Welcome to What Works.

The latter is my series of columns highlighting that which is helping to improve the lives of black children. The former is a sterling example thereof.

St. Frances was founded in 1828 by Mother Mary Lange, a Haitian-born nun who eventually moved to Baltimore, where she used her own money to educate free children of color - which was then illegal.

Nearly 180 years later, the order (Oblate Sisters of Providence) and school she founded serve more that 300 students. More than 70 percent of them qualify for free or subsidized lunches. More than 90 percent of them go to college.

What makes this miracle? David Owens, a teacher of theology and, like a number of his colleagues, an alumnus, ticks off a few factors: small class sizes, uniforms, discipline, rigorous academics, high expectations. "And then, lastly, love," he says. "When I scold you - yell at you, they say - it's not because I don't like you. It's because I love you."

In some form or another, every student or teacher says that: "The teachers look out for the students." "It's like family." The sense that teachers are invested in them seems to go a long way toward lifting students who have been taught from birth that they are not and cannot.

"What makes us different," says Sister John Francis Schilling, the school's president, "is we're independent. We can do whatever we want, pretty much."

In public schools, she says, "the principals' hands are tied, the teachers' hands are tied," and no one has the freedom to simply do what works. But at St. Frances, they do. For example, the school provides counseling to mend the emotional wounds of kids who have seen their mom on drugs, dad in jail, brother murdered. A third of her students, says Sister John Francis, are in weekly therapy.

"My belief is that you can take the smartest kid in the world, but if they've got all these issues, they're not going to be able to focus on their academics until they at least start dealing with the issues," she says.

Across the street from the school is a prison. High stone walls topped by concertina wire. Squatting there, massive, ugly and cold. Squatting there like a warning. Squatting there like a threat.

Deonte Tuggle, 17, goes to school in the literal shadow of that threat. Yet he is a young man of offhand confidence. He speaks with punctilious precision, his words not just grammatical but delivered with a studiously correct enunciation reminiscent of Data from Star Trek. A way of saying without saying, "See me. I'm not the usual. I'm not what you expect."

"I'm not like most boys my age that live in the neighborhood," he says. "I'm not out there smoking, drinking and getting high and all that kind of stuff. I don't let people dictate my life and tell me who I am as a person. Only I know who I am as a person."

Consider the child. Consider the neighborhood.

Now, consider the possibilities.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

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