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From Baltimore to the Bush

A Day in the Life of Baraka School

Representing East Africa: 13-year-old Levon Andrews (left) is one of 40 Baltimore middle-schoolers attending the Baraka School in rural Kenya.
A World Away: Baraka School is located a half hour down a dirt road from the small but bustling town of Nanyuki
Edward Green (in glasses) takes time between classes to strike a pose with friends.
Breaking Away From The Herd: At Baraka, "at-risk" Baltimore middle-schoolers enjoy small class sizes and an intensive system of behavior checks and rewards
13-year-old Kenyan Amos Lomboyo herds goats just outside the Baraka boundary.
The Middle of Nowhere: The Baraka School compound from its northern boundary line.
All Work and No Play. . . : When not teaching classes, Kenyan Peter Wathitu (far right) coaches soccer.

By Nicole Leistikow | Posted 1/15/2003

Levon Andrews, a 13-year-old from East Baltimore, found himself walking two and a half hours through the East Africa bush west of Mount Kenya. It was hot and he had no water, but he did have plenty of time to talk to the counselor who accompanied him, and to reflect--which was, in fact, the purpose of it all.

"I can't think about Level 3 until I get my act together," Levon concludes a week later, talking to fellow eighth-grader Brandon Dorsey about his placement in the strict system of behavior checks and rewards both are under as Baraka School students. They move up through the three levels by obtaining points earned through good conduct, class participation, etc.; the higher the level, the more privileges they receive. Although his first year at Baraka as a seventh-grader last year was "excellent," he is having trouble this year getting off to the right start. Levon wants to go home, but not because he's homesick: "I dealt with homesickness before." He's actually worried about failing and not being able to control himself. "I know I'm going to get restrained," he says. "I don't want to say things I might regret."

It's a worry that many of his 40 classmates (22 in seventh grade, 18 in eighth) share. They're a select group of "at risk" 11- to 14-year-old boys who have come to 60 fenced-in acres of Kenyan outback from overburdened Baltimore middle schools where they were getting in fights, being suspended, and on track to join the 40 to 70 percent of their peers (depending on which set of figures you believe) who would never finish high school . Financed by Baltimore-based philanthropy the Abell Foundation, the school accepted its first group of seventh-graders in 1996. This fall, three members of that first graduating class are preparing for the spring semester of their first year of college.

It is not yet clear whether Baraka is beating the odds, for the students or on its own behalf. Though it has been in operation for six years, Baraka has seen four headmasters over that time, and it had to expel 19 students back to Baltimore in 1999 after staff control disintegrated and students stopped listening to instructions. Baltimore City Public Schools, which helps fund the program, considered withdrawing its support and sent board members to investigate.

As a result of the incident, Baraka officials carefully reconsidered which students the school is equipped to handle. (The school's Student Handbook presents a description of common student issues under 11 headings: Self Pity, Inconsiderate of Others, Inconsiderate of Self, Authority Problem, Misleads Others, Easily Mislead, Aggravates Others, Easily Angered, Stealing, Lying, and Fronting.) Although students themselves initiate the application process after watching a slide show and getting a brochure at middle school, program administrators now are careful to weed out those applicants with serious psychiatric or medical needs they can't address.

According to the school's headmaster, Ray Berttula, much of the problem had to do with overcrowding: "They tried to run 45 kids in two dorms. That's a lot of kids in a small space." Berttula, along with Cynthia Schade, his wife and the school's academic dean, arrived in 2001, toting their two dogs and two cats from America. With his long hair, jeans, and Teva sandals, Berttula looks like the Peace Corps alumnus he is, the type who relishes swapping stories about getting out of sticky jams and solving problems with duct tape and wire. After arriving, one of Berttula's first projects was to plan and construct two new dorms for eighth-graders, which were finished this fall, just in time for Baraka's first year back at full capacity.

Berttula's goal is a per-pupil cost of $17,000; as the fall 2002 semester started, the school was three short of the 40 students needed to meet this target but has since filled up. (Baltimore City Public Schools decided to continue funding and now kicks in nearly $6,500 per student; parents pay a $60 monthly tuition, and Abell pays the rest.) If Berttula can maintain his target per-pupil cost and avoid heavy infrastructure expenses--like his two new dorms, which he values at $62,000 each--the school may, in fact, be a good deal for the city school system. In the United States, residential programs for at-risk children cost about $50,000 per pupil each year, and if any of these boys become juvenile-system inmates, the state will shell out nearly $22,000 a year to keep them locked up.

These are not figures that Levon Andrews concerns himself with on this October day, however. He's counting points. After being taken on his long walk "because I didn't want to go to school," getting several involuntary time-outs, and not earning an adequate amount of points for the day, he made up his mind to reform: "I started trying on Monday and Tuesday. Today, I got a good day--I only lost one point in school." The thought of earning a trip to nearby Nanyuki, a small town half an hour away, or even Nairobi, where they have malls and American stores, was enough motivation. That and the thought of not disappointing a loved one: "I was thinking that my mother was going to be mad, and that I could make her happy."

"The kids are really motivated by points," says Baraka teacher Ilana Foss, 23. Foss doesn't reveal her age to her seventh-graders, some of whom tower over her. Instead, the fresh-faced City College graduate from Mount Washington tries to "project an aged image" while not taking students' sometimes disparaging comments to heart. Attaining professional distance was harder last year, her first at the school. "Now when a kid says, 'Oh fuck off,' I'll note on the point sheet, 'fails to earn staff instruction points for using foul language,' and that's it," she says.

Foss found inspiration in Kenyan teachers like Njue Kaithungu and Peter Wathitu, who are both in their fourth year at Baraka. "They're real role models for me," she says. "They're much more low-key." Kaithungu and Wathitu attribute their equilibrium to simple experience, rather than some unique Kenyan perspective. While American staffers, with family and friends far away, tend to stay at Baraka for only a few years, the Kenyan teachers and counselors who make up half the professional staff supply greater continuity.

Twenty-nine-year-old Kaithungu's one missing tooth makes his easy smile all the more charming. He teaches math, science, and the Kiswahili language with authority and good humor. But even he admits that things haven't always been easy: "My major problem was having a kid cuss back at me, or act rude to me, slamming doors in my face, hurling insults." The Kenyan school system has little patience with students showing disrespect. Talking back to a teacher can get you immediately expelled. Caning, though banned officially in 2001, is still practiced in many of the country's schools.

In rural Kenyan communities, 13-year-old boys still go through initiation ceremonies recognizing them as marriageable men ready to take on adult responsibilities. Those who no longer go to school work as animal herders, tend farms, or find jobs at small businesses in town. The respect accorded to adults is severe--as Kaithungu describes it, "We come from communities where it was almost impossible to talk to your dad."

But learning to play basketball from his students and learning to cope with behavior beyond the pale of Kenyan culture has changed Kaithungu's own stance. "These children have actually lightened my principles of how a kid is supposed to behave," he says. "I've realized that it's possible to have fun with kids. They can get disrespectful to me, but we can still solve the whole problem without carrying a grudge."

Solving student problems, even physical outbreaks of anger, is made easier by Baraka's low student-to-teacher ratio. Class sizes vary from two to eight students. Compared to the average Baltimore middle school class of 30 or more, the contrast is striking. For Kenyan teachers, who sometimes have as many as 60 students in one classroom, the ability to devote attention to individual students is even more appealing. The teacher's pay, though only $5,000 a year, is relatively high in Kenya, where teaching can earn as little as $600.

When asked the difference between Kenyan and American teachers, two Baraka students notice a greater distinction between the two environments. Thirteen-year-old Edward Green says, "At Baraka they really want you to learn. In America they don't even care." His 12-year-old dorm mate, Justin Mackall, is more practical in his assessment: "The teachers live here with you, they're here if you need extra help in school. You can get [tutoring] the whole day any time. In Baltimore they have [tutoring], but that's only like one or two days a week." Tyrone Thornton, age 13, pipes up: "They need new schools [in Baltimore]. Where I went [Lombard Middle], there'd be classes in the hallway."

Quentin Shaw explains his preference for Baraka this way: "There are people here who care for you, people who like to wrestle." And it may be activities like wrestling, or catching a turtle down by the river last weekend, that stand out the most for boys brought up in urban Baltimore.

Berttula sees Baraka as a place that "let's these kids be kids," where they don't have to worry about following in the footsteps of the 55 Baltimore youths who died from gunshots in 1999. He smiles when describing an evening last year when he came out of his office after dark to find 21 kids "playing cops and robbers or hide and seek--you know, one of those kids' games. Now do that in downtown Baltimore. Would there be a problem? My guess is yes."

Following typical kid protocol, dinner is a time to win approval for the day's accomplishments and to complain about the food. Boys pass around point sheets to the teacher at their table. They joke about watery ketchup, some spinach and cheese disaster served the week before, and how not even Berttula's dogs will eat ugali, an East African staple made from corn meal. Schade asks Montrey Moore, a tall seventh-grader and basketball enthusiast, if he knows the number of NBA players drafted straight from high school this year. The atmosphere in the cafeteria is lighthearted, but with an undercurrent of tension. Teachers insist that students ask permission to get up and wait for the rest of their table before leaving, small regulations that indicate the need for external discipline, the fear that joking will become violent.

Antwan Rooks, from Dorm B, came to Baraka to "get away from some of my bad habits and control my anger." After being physically restrained once in his first three weeks (for cursing and refusing to go to the time-out room), he got his privileges back in time to enjoy last weekend. He rode horses, watched two movies, and caught a turtle, whose size grows from 30 pounds, to 50, to 100 as the story is retold. "The [river], it was deeper than a city stream," Rooks recounts. "Me and Boy Quentin, we got the top record in catching stuff. He caught a hedgehog, I caught a tortoise. It kept on peeing 'cause it was scared. We put it in a sweater and carried it, and when we got back the sweater looked like a real big fat man's sweater."

Exotic as a weekend trip to the river is to kids from the city, it is fairly banal by Baraka standards. A few days ago, a group of eighth-graders went to a nearby Masai village. There they helped make bricks for a work project and watched a goat being slaughtered. Levon Andrews is enthusiastic about the up-close gore: "I touched a heart--I didn't pick it up, though."

Among Baraka's greatest gifts to its students are that unaccustomed physical freedom and exposure to new experiences. Edward Green numbers getting to ride horses if he wins privileges as one of the main points in the school's favor, but he also notes that "we're in Africa, the motherland, where it all started for us." His Dorm A friends repeat "the motherland" with the relish of backup singers. But what the phrase means, Green still hasn't discovered: "We're stuck on this campus--we can't go nowhere until we make Level 2."

Baraka's distance from Baltimore doesn't guarantee an escape from the city's problems. During a reporter's visit, students from Dorm B return from their regular daily meeting with counselors to discover torn point sheets on the floor, soap in their cooler of drinking water, and some vandalized CD players. Without question, Dorm A is responsible. Counselor Keith Aulick has his hands full calming immediate talk of revenge. He promises an adult inquiry, tries to refocus everyone on playing a game, and takes those who can't be placated out for a walk. Already acclimated to Kenya by his previous stint in the Peace Corps, the scruffy-faced, outdoorsy Aulick is generally difficult to rile. Tonight however, good humor is hard to find. This latest incident is a serious blow to what he's been trying to teach his charges.

An hour before the raid, Aulick had been patiently leading the boys through the evaluation process called simply "group." Charles Pratt was first up and got five minutes to relate the day's small struggles while Aulick looked at his point sheet and interjected questions. Although other boys were clamoring for their turn, Charles was allowed to go first, probably because of the fight that almost broke out over dinner between him and Richard Keyser, a seventh-grader from Dorm A.

When Aulick asked, "Was what happened tonight worth having an SI"--short for serious incident--"over?" Charles agreed that it wasn't and tried to get credit for backing away. "You did back down, but it took two adults holding you," Aulick counters. "We want you to get to the point where you can do it on your own." After turning briefly to the topic of what the group could do to help out Richard, the instigator, who is having a tough week, Charles' session was brought to an end. Aulick complimented him for having a better day than yesterday. Charles' "I'm tryin'" voiced a weary pride.

Richard's problem, says his brother Romesh Vance, who lives in Dorm B, is that he tries "to be with his dorm." The argument at dinner and the raid after group could be taken as mere adolescent hijinks or the first signs of a gang mentality. Boys growing into young men make decisions about their priorities and their behavior that will affect the rest of their lives. For Aulick, the reward of working with his Baraka students is watching the moment "when they're contemplating whether to hit someone or escalate a situation, and you can see them making the right decision."

Although Romesh understands the pull that dorm loyalty can have, he proudly points out the tiger eye sticker he has earned by walking away from a fight.

It's 7:15 a.m. and Joseph Ngawatha looks sleep-deprived. His shift looking after Dorm A lasts from 4 in the afternoon to 8 the next morning, and usually he gets to bed shortly after lights out at 9 p.m. This morning, after dealing with the post-raid fallout past midnight, he says the current crop of seventh-graders seems "just like those we had in '99, with a similar background, attitude, and one ringleader." The atmosphere is tense: Morning exercises, usually taken by the seventh grade as a whole, have been canceled. Counselors plan how to keep the dorm factions separate at breakfast.

On the eighth-grade side of the cafeteria, Levon Andrews can't believe the seventh-graders' immaturity. He postures as a stern older-brother figure, jokingly offering to a teacher, "Let me go out there and drop-kick one of them." Darrell McNair, another eighth-grader, is too busy catching up on his algebra homework to pay much attention. Dana Richardson, 14, tall, and an intimidating chess player, had to stay in his dorm during free time yesterday for almost getting in a fight. He describes the current seventh-graders as "real bad, a lot worse [than we were]--they cuss too much. Last year no one got restrained at the beginning of the year."

It's a hard morning, especially for teachers. Once classes start at 8, the time-out center sees almost immediate arrivals. On a good day, like yesterday, there were five involuntary time-outs and 12 voluntaries by 1:30 p.m., almost the end of the school day. Today, across the courtyard, you can hear reminders flying from the teacher on time-out duty: "Do not worry about other people's behavior"; "Start taking responsibility for your actions"; "Do not come in here running your mouth."

But classes continue, and things generally settle down. Foss' seven students read a vocabulary book together, following Direct Instruction, a tightly scripted teaching method used in elementary schools to catch students working below grade level up to speed. It's been used in some Baltimore City schools since 1996, with generally positive results, and the Abell-funded Baltimore Curriculum Project is pushing its widespread adoption. "Everyone, what is the answer?" Foss asks and snaps her fingers, prompting the students to replace a word with its synonym and recite it in a sentence. Most students seem involved. In a class of seven, it stands out if you're not.

In Jessie Kigotho's eighth-grade Kiswahili class, some students are excited by the task of translating passages but appear torn between cooperating and clowning. When they cover vocabulary related to agriculture, half of them lose it at the sentence that translates, "This is a big hoe." Kigotho brings them back. Though one student has already been kicked out for removing the "gr" from "grass" in a translation, they plow ahead.

Whether or not Baraka's current student makeup resembles the disastrous class of '99, it seems unlikely that the same problems will erupt. For one thing, Ray Berttula puts a lot of time into making everything run smoothly. He usually works behind the scenes, with occasional consultations for his creative approaches to particular discipline problems. "Most of my time is geared towards keeping the infrastructure working," he says. "My role is to make sure that [the staff] have the stuff they need to interface with the kids."

Keeping the infrastructure working at Baraka is a large job. Being in the bush, the school must supply its own electricity and water. Cooking more than 200 meals a day while lacking large-scale refrigeration, they have food delivered twice a week from Nanyuki, which lies at the end of a dirt road that becomes a challenge in the wet season. Berttula's Peace Corps experience in Honduras comes in handy, allowing him to swap parasite stories with a young staff member who just came down with amoebas. Forty-five minutes from Nanyuki's hospital, the school supplies its own nurses, who have also become resources for the surrounding community, mostly poor farmers.

Problems that are easily remediable in the States take on a greater urgency. Berttula relates the school's rocky start in 2001: "Our Land Rover rolled over, we were having electrical problems, our water pump burned up, and one of our water towers collapsed, all in a 30- to 40-day period."

Around the same time, Berttula and staff made the three-hour trip to Nairobi to pick up the students arriving to start the year. They spent the evening in their hotel room watching TV broadcasts of the World Trade Center towers collapsing, slowly realizing they wouldn't need to go to the airport the next day. Scheduled to depart from BWI Airport on the morning of Sept. 11, the students' flight was quickly canceled. "We went for a couple of days not really sure if we were going to have any kids over here at all," Berttula says.

While two students dropped out after the tragedy, 21 others arrived two weeks later, deciding to go through with what the press, including a film documentary team tracking students over several years, have termed "the experiment." Having the students show up meant not only that Baraka would continue, but so would the assistance it provides to the surrounding population. Berttula says the school pumps 20 million shillings--about $250,000--into the local economy each year. "I won't say their survival depends on us," he says, "but we provide them with a huge amount of income."

Of course, the school must succeed in its mission to continue to exist. Ask Berttula about Baraka's results from the vantage point of his second year on the job and he says, "The jury's still out." If Baraka can turn around young lives headed in dangerous directions, "the experiment" will truly be a success.

Although Berttula can't predict which students Baraka won't be able to reach, he estimates that about two a year will drop out for various reasons, or simply fail to respond to the program. Those two or so students are a mystery to Ilana Foss, who finds it "frustrating, because the kids have everything working in their favor here. They have small classes, they have adults who support them, they have study hall. Everyone is out to help them."

The question for teacher Daniela Lewy is "how the transition going back turns out." Lewy is concerned that even the school's most promising graduates "are going back to the same exact place where they started," and wonders whether they will be able to maintain their progress after leaving the enclave in Kenya.

For those whose at-risk status isn't clearly apparent, going home after two years may mean little more than unpacking. Students like Justin Mackall, who says he came from a "kind of fun" middle school and a "nice quiet neighborhood" and sports precociously adult manners, do not list escape from bad schools, gangs, or violence among their motivations for coming to Baraka.

However, for others who have gained self-control, bolstered by the constant presence of caring adults and a strictly enforced penalty/reward system, the lack of individual attention back in Baltimore may come as a shock. The Baraka School may look impressive on an application to magnet high schools such as Baltimore City College or the School for the Arts, which figure prominently in many kids' plans. However, Baraka's own statistics show that about two-thirds of Baraka's graduating class usually enroll back at zoned neighborhood schools, which usually have fewer resources.

Clearly, Baraka offers no magic fix. Cynthia Schade, the academic dean, often reminds her staff, "You can not undo 12 years of behavior in two weeks." Or even in two years. For now, returning to Baltimore seems a long way away, and there are enough current problems to focus on.

Romesh Vance just wants to make it to Level 2. "They just told us in the book about the fun things," he complains. "And that's the things I haven't seen yet." His list of affronts is long: "They snap their hands at us, they put us in dumb classes, ugali--that stuff is nasty." He's also annoyed that he hasn't gotten his allowance yet and doubts that Dorm A will be properly punished by the adults. He also faces a bigger worry, and one that perhaps propels his smaller dissatisfactions: "They got a rule if you fail one class you fail the whole seventh grade."

But with so many people to check up on you, failing Baraka is a difficult task. Around 8:30 a.m., just as Dorm A counselor Joseph Ngawatha should be getting off-duty, he asks Keith Aulick take a ride with him in the Land Rover. They set off with a jug of water and Romesh's brother Richard, rumored to be the ringleader in last night's raid. It's his turn to go on a walk--for this Baltimore boy to fear, for a few moments, getting lost in the outback. For him to consider how far he's willing to go to be with his dorm.

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