Eyes on the ball

Parents, kids pin their hopes on one white orb in boarding school lottery

May 18, 2008|By Tanika White | Tanika White,Sun reporter

The lucky ones heard their numbers called early.

Not only could those first-announced winners beam with pride about being one of the first 80 students who will attend the SEED School of Maryland, but they also did not have to agonize in their chairs any longer, watching the white lottery balls tumble in gilded cages - the numbered balls representing dreams for all and disappointment for many.

Yesterday morning, the founders of the nation's first public boarding school, which opened 10 years ago in Washington, D.C., held the inaugural lottery to fill the slots for the Baltimore-based second location, which will open its doors in August to disadvantaged youths from all over the state.

More than 300 students applied from the city, the suburbs of Baltimore and Washington, the Eastern Shore, and Western and Southern Maryland. Families traveled to the College of Notre Dame of Maryland to see if their child's number would be called.

Their reasons differed, but the underlying theme was the same: The SEED School - with its small class sizes, academically rigorous courses and impressive college admissions record - offered them a way out of the crowded schools and unforgiving neighborhoods they came from.

"This is the answer to a prayer," said a joyous Evelyn Collins of Randallstown, just after her grandson's number was called. His was the third number announced, but Nos. 1 and 2 were not in the audience to squeal the way Collins did or jump and wave like her grandson, Lucas Gutierrez, did.

The boarding school, funded mostly by the state, will offer a tuition-free, college preparatory education on the campus of the former Southwestern High School. It will open with a class of 80 sixth-graders, and add a grade each year through 12th. It is designed to serve students who live in "under-resourced" communities and are not performing to their potential. Organizers said many are likely to be low-income.

Jumping, yelping, cheering and hugging were in no short supply yesterday during the first few minutes of the lottery. But midway through, other activities became more prevalent: hand-holding, rocking, foot-tapping and, all throughout the too-warm auditorium, silent praying.

Carolyn Tenai of Lansdowne and her son Elijah Anthony Johnson Jr. clasped hands and put their heads together, willing the lottery ball with No. 91 to free itself from the pack. "If we get it," Tenai vowed, "I'll probably pass out on the floor."

When Maria Howard's son Deven's number was called, the medical biller from Columbia leaned back her head, covered her face with her program and let the tears fall.

"I work 40 hours and at least 20 hours I'm either in school or studying for school," Howard said. "It's hard on me because I can't help him, and when he gets bad grades, I feel as though it's my fault because I'm not there. This is such a good opportunity for him. And I know he's going to get a good education."

In Washington, 97 percent of SEED School graduates are accepted to four-year colleges, many with impressive names such as Georgetown, Princeton and Case Western.

Although the Maryland program is as yet untried, parents hear about the school's reputation and clamor to get in, said Head of School Dawn Lewis. A major draw is the school's size; the enrollment will grow to 400 students over seven grades and never get any larger, she said.

"We will know every child and their families," Lewis said.

School leaders know, however, that for many students, the drastically different learning environment will be too much. Living away from family and friends during the week, without television or video games; mandatory study halls and extracurricular activities; intense personalized learning plans and unwavering pressure to succeed are SEED School hallmarks. Many will drop out in the first two years, officials said.

That is a good thing for Tenai and her son, Elijah Anthony. Their number was called third among 40 on the priority wait list. They were disappointed but not defeated, Tenai said, because she knows in her heart that he will make it in.

"He's my blessed child. I didn't know I was pregnant with him till I was 71/2 months pregnant and I was on drugs. So he's not even supposed to be here or be doing as well as he is," said Tenai, adding that Elijah Anthony's father is dead. "So I know he'll get in."

For many other families, the day ended less happily.

Maurice Chandler of West Baltimore left his security guard's job at 7:30 a.m. and came home to pick up his son, Maurice Jr., his wife, Malinda, and their two other children so they all could be a part of the process. They sat together in a row, quietly, listening for No. 17.

But once the first class was selected and the priority wait list called, the auditorium seats began to empty without Maurice's number being uttered. The 11-year-old hid his face in his shirt, leaned against his father's arm and cried.

His mother tried to reassure everyone that Maurice's future still was bright. "I know whatever he does, he's going to succeed," she said.

But Maurice was inconsolable.

"It was a long shot," said his father, his eyes heavy from lack of sleep. "But it was a chance we had to take."

tanika.white@baltsun.com

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