Ambassadors' mission is in peril

Program for at-risk students at Annapolis High faces dwindling funds

May 18, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,Sun Reporter

Daisy Creek's granddaughter could have been one of the lost ones if not for Sandra Johnson, a community liaison whom Annapolis High sends out to check on students who might be at risk of dropping out.

The 17-year-old Annapolis High senior had a baby last year and juggles caring for her 15-month-old son, tutoring and a weekend job. She has sometimes missed school, though, and recently got into a scuffle with another girl in the school cafeteria.

That's when Johnson stepped in to help the teen mother "refocus," Johnson said. She talked to her about graduation requirements, baby care and a career path.

Gradually, Creek's granddaughter is catching up on schoolwork and is even thinking about college.

Johnson is a "community ambassador," a group of 13 housing authority employees and involved city residents who have joined forces with the school district to help reduce truancy, dropout rates and disruptive behavior at Annapolis High School.

The program -- a partnership between the county's Housing Authority and the school system -- is just two months old but already in jeopardy.

The $25,000 that the school system's equity office scraped together in March was only enough to support the program for six months. In the fall, tight fiscal times might force that money to be redirected toward professional development and training, leaving the group penniless.

"We're really worried," said the program's leader, Sharon Mackell, who is a pupil personnel worker who helps some of the most academically and emotionally troubled students at Annapolis High. "We think we're really making a difference, but I don't know how long we can last."

Ambassadors work five days a week, and are paid for two hours a day, though Mackell said the time spent with families is often double and triple that.

The core of the ambassadors' work are home visits -- days spent knocking on doors, leaving notes for families to call them for help, afternoons drinking coffee with families and talking about ways to help children graduate, or if that's not an option, transfer to an alternative program like evening high school, a GED program at community college or Job Corps.

The key to the ambassadors' effectiveness, Mackell said, is their knowledge of the neighborhoods and the families. Unlike school teachers or social workers who try to intervene but are sometimes thwarted by families who consider them strangers or part of a bureaucracy they don't trust, the ambassadors are people the families know and see in their community and recreation centers.

This is a critical time of year for the group. It's near the end of school for high school seniors. The community ambassadors are on a sprint to save the dozens of seniors at risk of not graduating because they have missed more than six days of school and are failing at least one class.

On a recent Tuesday, the group pored over school data that showed them who the critical families were and hammered out a strategy to reach them. They will start with phone calls, then home visits. Once they make the family connection, they will follow up with the students in hallways and classrooms, so they don't feel like the help was temporary.

The help isn't just about academics, Mackell said, sometimes it's about offering families advice about health, finances, even food.

Ambassador Maurica Simms, 24, visited a family on Clay Street to find out why a freshman who lived there had missed dozens of days in school. The girl was also failing algebra, which she needs to pass to graduate. But Simms learned there was much more than a problem with math.

The girl had been sick with severe allergies, but the family couldn't afford medicine. The family had also run out of food several days earlier. Simms worked with a food pantry to bring the family canned goods.

"Sometimes, you have to do things like that, bring food, before you can start the real work with the children in these families," Simms said.

The ambassadors' work is part of a larger effort to re-energize academics at a school that's under a microscope for its performance.

Superintendent Kevin M. Maxwell has criticized Annapolis High for success with only a portion of its students and has required all staff members to reapply for their jobs next year.

He has repeated one alarming statistic in speeches: Half of black males in Annapolis High don't graduate.

Principal Donald Lilley said the ambassadors' work is a key part of the school's attempt to turn statistics like that around.

"I think it's important for us to do whatever we can to build trust, a relationship with parents who may not have had a positive experience when they were in the school system," he

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