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Mobtown Beat

Lessons Learned

The Baraka School Gets Back on Its Feet

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 6/19/2002

In September 1996, Jason McCall was 11 years old and stood 4-foot-11. Young and small as he was, though, he remembers feeling like he was on to something big.

"Just the chance to go to Africa, to get out of the country, that was the chance of a lifetime," says the West Baltimore resident, now 17 and a full foot taller. Six years ago, he was one of 21 Baltimore City boys who made up the inaugural seventh-grade class at the Baraka School, a two-year institution in Kenya run by the Abell Foundation, a Baltimore-based philanthropy. He got that chance by virtue of being deemed "at risk," a label readily applied to kids in public schools who have learning or behavioral disorders, or come from broken homes--or simply have to walk the city streets to get to school and back.

"The day after Jason left for Kenya, there was a bank robbery near [Dunbar Middle, where Jason had attended sixth grade], on the same route he walked," his mother, Pauline Edwards Shehee, recalls. "He could have been in that mix."

Instead, McCall, a bright kid with a wicked temper, was tucked away on an isolated campus at the base of Mount Kenya, about 150 miles from Nairobi, where he took part in a highly structured academic program that mixed the basics with advanced intellectual exercises such as chess instruction. In two years, McCall completed the program, one of 52 youths to do so since Baraka's inception; this month he earned his diploma from City College, joining five other members of that pioneer class as the first Baraka alumni to complete high school.

With its first graduates gearing up for adult life, Abell is looking for more than anecdotal evidence that its African experiment is working. A few months back the foundation commissioned the University of Maryland, Baltimore's psychology department to study whether boys who completed the program were less likely to struggle in school or get in trouble with the law than peers who were not accepted to Baraka or left it early; the results are due later this year. Meanwhile, new policies and a fresh infusion of funds appear to have rescued the school from an eruption of disciplinary problems that threatened to close it three years ago.

When it was launched, Baraka was an audacious attempt at school reform, a program designed to give seventh- and eighth-grade city boys an academic edge by exposing them to a different world--and, in the bargain, giving them a two-year reprieve from lives fraught with the urban ills that send dropout, incarceration, and homicide rates soaring among Baltimore youth.

By 1999, what started as a bold educational experiment seemed on the verge of ending as a lesson in failure. Abell was receiving little financial support from the city school system--only $1,800 per student, about one-eighth the per-head cost, leaving the foundation to cover most of the school's $600,000 annual budget. Worse, there were reports of chaos at the distant school, which Baraka administrators blamed on rebellious, homesick kids testing novice teachers, sometimes violently. Seventeen students and several staffers were sent home, and the school itself appeared to be in jeopardy.

"When you work with children, they take their lead from adults," says Mary Scanlan, the U.S. coordinator for Baraka. "If the adults have lost control of the situation or are unable to get things going forward, the children are going to not follow along." Scanlan says Baraka administrators learned the hard way to be on the lookout for kids with emotional and behavioral problems so severe they risk disrupting the program's "investment"--the school and its students.

"We've learned how to read between the lines [on applications] and figure out if the child has been abused or has a violent past," Scanlan says. "We can't have that. Baraka is not a residential treatment center--it's a school."

With the '99 headlines receding into memory, Baraka is still surviving--and thriving. Rather than fold up shop, Abell reaffirmed its financial commitment, refined admissions criteria, and beefed up staff. There has not been an expulsion from Baraka since the 1999 incidents. And, with the school's first class now finishing high school, there are indications that Baraka is back on track and here--or rather, there--to stay.

In many ways, Jason McCall embodies Abell's aim for the program, says Mavis Jackson, Baraka's recruitment coordinator, a position created in 1999 to address the enrollment problems. "It's not about taking the worst of the worst," she says. "It's about finding kids who want to do better, who want to get a fresh start [away from] a place where all you hear is how bad kids are."

In addition to being more cautious about admissions, Baraka administrators are getting pickier about filling the 22-member teaching and counseling staff. Scanlan says the school is working harder to gauge whether prospective faculty members can handle the tricky task of mentoring and disciplining kids who are far from home, and whether they are committed to Baraka's principles--a key criteria for a job that pays only $5,000 a year plus housing and expenses. Scanlan compares a stint at the school to the Peace Corps--a job for "people who are young and idealistic, and who don't have a lot of financial commitments."

Along with hiring a staffer to focus on recruitment, the school has also hired a facilitator to help monitor kids after they complete their two-year Kenya stint, and to provide help--SAT prep, transportation to visit colleges, or just an opportunity to talk about their readjustment to city schools and city life.

Abell's willingness to reform the troubled program and follow up with its alumni helped convince the city school board to nearly quadruple Baraka's per-student funding last year, from $1,800 to $6,800. The boost followed a November 2000 visit to the school by three board members. "I felt that it was a life-changing experience," board member Dorothy Siegel said in voting to raise the funding two months after the visit, according to a Jan. 10, 2001, Sun account. "We did not go in anticipation that we would be so impressed with the changes these young men had made in their lives."

McCall says that during his time in Kenya, he participated in his share of boys-will-be-boys teasing and occasional roughhousing. But he says he also learned how to control his temper and have patience. "When people used to tease me about being skinny, I would fight," he says. Baraka staff helped him learn how to "deal with people and let the small stuff go," a lesson he says he and his fellow students put to use when they returned to Baltimore.

McCall is now considering scholarship offers to Delaware State University and Virginia Union, among others, the product of his academic performance at City College (he graduated with a 3.0 grade-point average) and his prowess on the trombone as part of the school band. His success elicits a smile from Shehee, who attributes to Baraka a share of the credit. Having McCall spend two early-teenage years in Africa gave her a welcome release from fear of what might become of him at home. And, she adds, "it made his brain more universal. He went there a boy and came back a man."

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