Darius Johnson (left), a student at Baltimore Polytechnic… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
Darius Johnson says he's just an ordinary student, presented with an educational opportunity in his freshman year of high school that led him to extraordinary choices: Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Duke, Princeton, Harvard, Cornell, Stanford and Washington universities, the University of Pennsylvania and Dartmouth College.
The senior at Polytechnic Institute is among the gifted students who have worked their way through the Ingenuity Project, one of two programs that have given Baltimore students a competitive edge in college admissions but now face funding cuts in the city's tightest schools budget in decades.
After years of declining funding, and now a new round of cuts the school board is proposing for next year's budget, schools that host Ingenuity and the International Baccalaureate are looking for alternative sources of money or holding out hope that district leaders will see the value of offerings proven to bring out the best in the brightest students.
Johnson, a first-generation college student raised by a single mother, plans to head to Harvard next year on a Gates-Millennium scholarship, which is to cover his education through a doctorate.
Johnson applied to Ingenuity as a freshman — not because he was "naturally gifted," he said, but because he needed focus. By sophomore year, he was researching a new therapy for HIV patients at Johns Hopkins.
"The work is hard," he said. "But as much as we give in hard work, they give back in opportunity. I hope kids who come after me get the same opportunities."
Ingenuity, a program that engages students at Poly and Roland Park Elementary/Middle and other high-performing schools in a rigorous science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum and research, is one of the budget items that school officials are asking the school board to fund with emergency reserves. The board has rejected that request.
Board members are scheduled to vote on a budget next month.
The Ingenuity program, which serves 534 students in four schools, is also facing a major fundraising hurdle, due in part to dwindling funding from the school system in the last five years.
Next year, it would have to raise more than $600,000, and would require Roland Park to pay a per-pupil fee next year for the first time.
Other schools have paid the $100-per-pupil fee. Roland Park has made financial contributions in other ways: paying for full-time Ingenuity staff, helping maintain the program's computer lab, and funding trips.
Principal Nicholas D'Ambrosio said the school would need to raise money to help cover the roughly $18,000 check the school would have to cut to pay the per-pupil charge next year.
The International Baccalaureate program, available at City College, Mount Washington and Thomas Jefferson Elementary/Middle, offers an internationally recognized curriculum known for its rigor and global focus. It's slated for budget cuts next year in two of the schools.
Mount Washington's IB program is set to receive $100,000 next year, down $31,000 from last year. And the budget at City College, which runs two programs, will decrease by $34,000 to $200,000.
Thomas Jefferson is set for a funding increase, because years of underfunding put the school at risk for losing its IB designation.
The school system says that its scaled-back support for Ingenuity and IB is part of a long-term plan.
"In order to ensure there is a diverse portfolio of school options for students to choose from, City Schools is committed to supporting schools in initiating programs, such as IB and Ingenuity," the district said in a statement.
"However, the intent is that over a period of time these programs will become self-sustainable" through individual school budgets and community partnerships.
The Ingenuity program was started in 1993 by the Abell Foundation, which has continued to financially back the program every year since. Ingenuity officials said the goal was for the program to eventually be fully funded by the school system.
But data show that in the last five years, contributions from the school system have dropped, from $420,000 in 2010 to a proposed $368,000 next year. Next year, the Abell Foundation plans to cut its funding to Ingenuity by $100,000 in order to spread money to other philanthropic causes.
"It's been a tremendously successful program, and we think it's something that the school system should really be doing," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation
Dolores Costello, executive director of Ingenuity, said the program posts good results — 95 percent of graduates go on to four-year colleges, and 90 percent graduate in four years — but it still falls short in areas she said are pertinent to its growth.