Drug czar praises city's program

7 advisers work with 100 Douglass High students in faith-based plan

April 18, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

The White House drug czar visited Frederick Douglass High in West Baltimore yesterday to laud a faith-based program that places youth advisers in troubled schools.

John P. Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said he was "very, very impressed" with the work being done by New Vision Youth Services.

The program started in 2005 at Baltimore's Southwestern high school complex but moved to Douglass this school year because the Southwestern complex is closing. It has seven advisers, all of whom grew up in a troubled urban environment or understand what it's like to live in such a setting.

The advisers monitor the halls, track students' grades and attendance, and lend support when kids are having a bad day. They work directly with about 100 students at Douglass, a historically black school with a proud history whose struggles have put it at the center of political disputes.

"When I have a problem, only thing I got to do is go to New Vision, and they'll help me," said Shawntez Hill, 15, a sophomore. "I feel comfortable talking to New Vision because I know they'll be honest with me. ... They've been through the same thing."

The program, which strives to establish a "violence-free zone," is run in partnership with the Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, a nonprofit group with youth advisers at 20 schools nationwide. Other sites are in Prince George's County and Washington.

"Many of the schools operate like it's in Baghdad," said Robert L. Woodson Sr., the center's founder and president, who appeared with Walters yesterday at Douglass. He said the schools in his network strive to work with the students causing the most trouble, to get them to lead their peers in a positive direction.

In Baltimore, the program is run by the Rev. Billy H. Stanfield Jr., a former drug dealer who was shot in both legs in 1993 and subsequently spent five years in federal prison, where he says he experienced a religious transformation. He has been working in youth ministry ever since.

Stanfield said the Southwestern complex had a 30 percent reduction in suspensions during the year the program operated there. He did not have any preliminary figures for Douglass, saying he wanted to wait until the school year is over to make any judgments. He said he is confident that results will be similar to those at Southwestern.

But Japheth Clark, 17, an officer in the student government, said that while New Vision is helping a select group of students, Douglass has seen an increase in fights and students roaming the halls. He said one problem is that students who are expelled from other city schools are being sent to Douglass, and Douglass students who are kicked out are allowed back.

"They're trying to do things, and it's just not working," the sophomore said, pointing to half-empty shelves in the school library, where the event with Walters was held. He said several academic classes are staffed with substitutes.

The alma mater of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Douglass was one of 11 city schools targeted for state takeover last year. Then-Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele visited the school and pledged reform, telling students that they had been shortchanged.

But the General Assembly blocked the takeover, and Steele said city school system officials were unreceptive to his offer of help. Also last school year, the Douglass football team had to forfeit its winning season amid allegations that it used an academically ineligible player, and the principal was dismissed. In October, a shooting occurred on school grounds during a football game.

Now, Douglass is one of three high schools that the system plans to overhaul in the next academic year. It will be run by its own governing board, operating in partnership with the Johns Hopkins University.

Stanfield said he expects New Vision to continue during the transition, but said that the program has a grant to operate only through the end of this school year and is looking for funding after that. Officials said the program costs $300,000 to $400,000 a year.

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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