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Mobtown Beat

Out of Africa

City's Kenya School Program Faces Critical Year

By Molly Rath | Posted 9/23/1998

Standing in the Memorial Stadium parking lot on a mid-September Sunday afternoon waiting for a bus to take him and 16 other boys to the airport to catch a plane to Kenya, Tony Edmonds describes custard apples--their big seeds, how they're soft and chewy and taste better than apples.

It was the exotic fruit that Edmonds liked best about going to school in East Africa last year. His buddy, Terrell Davis, liked the game drives of leopards and hyenas. For Dontay Hendricks it was discovering "that feeling that you can teach another person to do something." And, echoing the other boys' parents, Davis' father, David Gilliam, marvels at how his son has matured.

But amid all the pre-trip excitement on this sweltering afternoon, the last-minute sibling jostling and parental pep talks, nobody is talking school--which is, after all, what this African odyssey is all about. Edmonds and company, this year's eighth-grade class at the Baraka School in Laikipia, Kenya, are returning for their second and final year at the boarding school. It's part of an academic pilot program for at-risk middle school boys. And this year, the school's third, is the most crucial yet in the life of the program.

With the first boys to complete the program returning to Baltimore City public schools this month, this school year represents the first real chance to see if the Baraka School works: Are the boys, who entered Baraka reading on a second- or third-grade level, now on par with their ninth-grade peers? Have they overcome the behavioral problems that tagged them as candidates for the program in the first place?

This year also brings substantive changes in the Baraka School's academic program, based on assessments of its first two years. Classes have been dropped and added; the scope of the curriculum is expanding; and, pending a decision by the State Board of Education, the school may begin administering the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program this spring.

"Our graduates are our ambassadors. How well they perform will go a great way down the road to certifying the correctness of our decisions," says David Mitchell, a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge and chair of the Baraka School Board of Trustees. "At the same time the kids there will benefit from what we've learned through trial and error."

The Baraka School--born out of a partnership between the Abell Foundation and Elimu Inc., an organization founded by local lawyer Keefe Clemons for the purpose of starting the school--opened in September 1996 as a predominantly privately funded program for boys in Baltimore City public schools who are ineligible for most programs in the system due to poor academic records, truancy, suspensions, and delinquency. The school, which seeks to eventually become part of the city school system, attempts to build the boys' self esteem through academics.

"Academics are the integral piece to why we are able to turn the kids around," says Kate Walsh, senior program officer at Abell and the school's executive director. "They're in school and they're saying, 'Wow, I'm doing OK.' It's the first time most of them have ever felt successful, and that's 99 percent of why their behavior changes."

The school's educational foundation is Direct Instruction--a heavily scripted curriculum with remedial programs for older children and adults--and the one-on-one instruction that comes with two- to 12-student classrooms. But the specifics of the Baraka School program are still evolving as staffers gauge what does and doesn't work.

Under Direct Instruction's corrective-reading plan, all Baraka students begin the program with four language-arts classes a day--reading, comprehension, writing, and spelling. The school uses Direct Instruction because it's easily tailored to individual student's needs, and it's one of the few curricula with remedial components, meaning struggling seventh-grade readers don't get stuck with second-grade books.

Last year, students began graduating from Direct Instruction to the Calvert School's home-schooling program for literature, a curriculum more akin to traditional middle-school English, wherein students work with books, analyzing paragraphs, character motivation, and the like. By the end of last year, half Baraka's senior class was using the Calvert curriculum; this year, Walsh says, half the senior class will start under Calvert and two-thirds will likely finish the year in the program. Given Calvert's more traditional structure, she says, it serves as a good transition for kids readying to return to Baltimore schools.

With math, the Baraka School has had less success. In its first two years students had one period a day of corrective math under Direct Instruction, yet they continued to lag a couple of years behind, Walsh says. At Baltimore City College, where 12 of the 16 Baraka School graduates are enrolled this year, the boys have struggled most with math, according to City principal Joe Wilson. As a result, students at Baraka this year will get two math periods a day, one using Direct Instruction and another involving a new program, Saxon Mathematics.

The Baraka School is feeling its way as it goes, and it's too soon to measure any real quantitative results: Its first graduates have only been back in the Baltimore school system for a month, and ninth grade tends to be a tough year on teens. But Wilson says there are encouraging signs: All but a couple of City's 12 Baraka alums met the standards for admission to City, and those that didn't demonstrated during a summer program the maturity and determination needed to get in. Nearly all are reading at the correct grade level, Wilson says, and they have an independence and self-reliance rarely seen in ninth-graders.

"The Baraka School emphasizes speaking and writing to justify an opinion, and [these boys] have been socialized away from contentiousness and toward communicating and problem-solving," Wilson says.

But Baraka School's biggest challenge lies in the year ahead as it attempts to perpetuate its initial success and gain acceptance as a bona fide program within the city school system, and hence gain public funding. The program currently costs $12,500 per student per year; all but $1,800 (which is covered by the school system) comes from the Abell Foundation, which has also underwritten all construction, staffing, and operational costs to date. While Abell can afford to underwrite the school indefinitely in its current form, Walsh says, to reach more students another reliable stream of money, such as state education funds, will be needed.

"This is the focal year" for the school, says Mitchell, the Baraka board chair. "And it's an important year for the board as we take on new challenges in overseeing recruitment of staff and students, and as we try to establish a broader financial basis for the institution."

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