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Baltimore school system explores future of Renaissance Academy after third student is killed

Baltimore city school has lost three students to violence.

Baltimore school leaders are exploring ways to relocate and rebrand Renaissance Academy High School after a third student there was killed in as many months.

Schools CEO Gregory Thornton says he is considering moving the school out of the space it now shares with Booker T. Washington Middle School in the Druid Heights-Upton community. He also plans to visit a charter school in Washington that he believes could be a successful model for Renaissance.

Thornton says he seriously considered closing the school last fall but decided against it.

In November, 17-year-old Ananias Jolley was stabbed in a classroom. A classmate was charged in the attack; Jolley died in December.

In January, 16-year-old Darius Bardney died in what police called an accidental shooting. And on Monday, 17-year-old Daniel Jackson, who had dropped out of the school last fall, was found shot to death on a street corner less than two miles away.

"Anything I could have done to save the life of a young man cut down too soon, I would have," Thornton said in an interview Friday. "But I can't look back. What I can do is look forward and create opportunities for students to have a safe learning environment where youngsters can reach their dreams and aspirations."

Officials at Renaissance, a close-knit school that brings in outside partners to mentor students and tracks their progress into college or a career, describe Jackson's death as another tragedy in an already devastating school year.

They say the deaths highlight the challenges faced by students growing up in one of the city's poorest and most violent areas.

Thornton plans to provide more resources and staff to the school as he considers its future.

A former principal will return to support current Principal Nikkia Rowe, who has led the school for three years. The district has deployed additional hall monitors, and it is applying for a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help expand its mentorship program.

Rowe and others say they are encouraged that Thornton is targeting the problems confronting Renaissance rather than targeting the school itself. They say they appreciate that he is including the community in plotting the school's next steps.

Rowe, who has been credited with recruiting the most troubled youths to Renaissance and embracing them, says Thornton has been present, physically and emotionally, at the school since Jolley's death.

She says he understands that the small school has been limited in the programs it can offer students, and that without the mentorship program, the school could be mourning more than three deaths.

"He has turned attention to Renaissance," Rowe said. "So I look forward to the continued support from central office."

Bronwyn Mayden, who heads a program at the University of Maryland School of Social Work that partners with Renaissance, says she is also encouraged by Thornton's plans.

Mayden says she wants Renaissance to stay in the neighborhood and thrive under Rowe. "We don't want to scatter these kids to other schools because what we know is that they won't get there," she said. "Our commitment has not diminished."

Mayden said the school has suffered from "benign neglect" and needs a better building, a more intensive effort to help students earn enough academic credit to graduate and internship programs that can help prepare its students for the job market.

She also hopes the school can have the basics, such as its own sports teams, and innovative programming, such as year-round classes.

Thornton hopes that the school can rebound by reclaiming the principles on which it was founded in 2005. It was opened by a private operator out of New York as a so-called innovation school with a college-preparatory theme.

The school was modeled on Noble Street Charter High School in Chicago. It accepted students who were performing below grade level and used interventions such as intensive academic advising to prepare them for college.

Renaissance drew comparisons to a private school. Parents praised it for its structure and standards.

Karl Perry, the school's founding principal, says the school served a population similar to the current student body, which is predominantly boys from the city's poorest neighborhoods.

Students were required to wear uniforms, cover tattoos, and leave their hoop earrings and sneakers at home. They could earn merits toward early dismissal, or points toward detention on Fridays. Staff had professional development.

The students had such an air of confidence and seriousness about them, Perry says, that they became targets when the school moved to Druid Heights-Upton in 2006 and they mixed with kids from the neighborhood.

In 2010, Baltimore Magazine named Renaissance one of the best high schools in the city, its website boasts.

Perry left in 2012, and the school's operator followed a year later. Renaissance reverted to a traditional model. It had a managing principal for one year before Rowe took over.

Thornton says he is hopeful for Renaissance's transformation. In the last few weeks, even amid crisis, he says, he has seen attendance rates stabilize and classrooms focusing again on academics.

"At the end of the day, there's something special about what they've been able to put together," he said. "We still have a tremendous work to do there, but I believe we can recapture Renaissance."

Baltimore Sun reporter Kevin Rector contributed to this article.

egreen@baltsun.com

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