The Open Society is marking its 15th year in Baltimore. In a recent phone conversation with Sun reporter Yvonne Wenger, founder and chairman George Soros talked about the foundation.

On the field next to Northeast Middle School, young refugees Abhishek Yonghang and Ahmed Osman kicked a soccer ball around, each grateful for the common connection as they adjust to a new life far from their former homes in Nepal and Somalia.

Three miles away in a classroom at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, junior Wayne Young slipped a suit jacket over his school uniform for debate practice with the Urban Debate League, trying to "look the part" of the Harvard law grad he envisions himself to one day be.

The lives of these Baltimore teens are among the thousands influenced by George Soros, a billionaire philanthropist who decided 15 years ago that the city, with severe crime and poverty and just enough potential, was ripe for an experiment.

The Baltimore office of his Open Society Institute was designed as a social justice laboratory to keep students engaged in school, confront drug addiction, reduce incarceration and grow an army of advocates. Now, the 83-year-old hedge fund investor — who has given $90 million to the effort here — wants to recreate it in as many as five more U.S. cities.

"A lot remains to be done, but we now consider the Baltimore experiment so successful that we wanted to replicate it nationwide," Soros said in a phone interview from his native Budapest, Hungary.

Soros, who lives outside New York City, said his organization, Open Society Foundations, has given planning grants to eight communities to compete for future offices. Meanwhile, he pledged his continued support in Baltimore, saying the advancements the institute has helped promote in student attendance, discipline and performance are the return on investment he wanted.

"Baltimore is our poster child, the city that has done the most," he said. "From my perspective, that is the one I cherish the most."

The local office will mark its anniversary Tuesday with a sold-out event, "Big Change Baltimore," that is expected to bring 500 people to Center Stage. Speakers will include civil rights activist Sherrilyn Ifill and Ravens president Dick Cass, and the organization will give awards to community members, including Baltimore Sun columnist Dan Rodricks. Soros is not expected to attend.

Celeste Amato, president of the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers, said OSI has honed in on the issues most critical to the city. Her group works with OSI and more than 145 other philanthropic groups.

"What philanthropy brings is the ability to test ideas and innovative solutions to what may seem to be intractable issues," she said, and at OSI, that's "part of their mission."

Jeff Singer, an advocate for the homeless in Baltimore for more than 40 years and an adjunct instructor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, said quantifying OSI's impact and separating its successes from other nonprofits is impossible. But what he knows for sure is that because of OSI's work, people have greater access to addiction services, and marginalized individuals such as ex-offenders are being heard.

"Their impact in the philanthropy and nonprofit world has been as a leader in showing a relationship between service and advocacy," Singer said. "There aren't very many philanthropies that are willing to fund both. OSI has seen the connection.

"OSI does some of that work itself, but they are also providing the lifeblood for us to do it."

For example, the Urban Debate League, launched by the institute in 1999, boasts a graduation rate of 90 percent and college acceptance rate of 80 percent among its participating students. This year, 31 city schools are participating in the league and 600 students have signed up so far.

During a recent practice drill at Mergenthaler, Fernando Kirkman told Young, the 16-year-old from Pigtown, and his teammates to speak louder and project their voices.

"Debate is a competitive activity," said Kirkman, 28, a program coordinator for the league and a graduate of Baltimore City College and Towson University. He is also a former debate league student. "Just like the football team, just like the basketball team, you have to commit to doing this at the highest level you can obtain."

Shamaiah Evans, a sophomore from East Baltimore whose sights are set on Carnegie Mellon University, joined the debate league last year. With Kirkman's help, the 15-year-old focused her arguments around this year's debate topic, Latin American economic policy, discussing the instability of Venezuela, the danger of a civil war and its reliance on oil reserves.

She had never heard of Soros before, but last week she considered the billionaire and his investment for a moment, and said, "I think he saw a lot of potential in Baltimore."

Like the debate league, OSI's investment has been the springboard for nearly 150 projects through its Community Fellowships program, which has helped to create a citywide network of social entrepreneurs. Each fellow receives $60,000 over 18 months as well as money for health insurance, travel and education debt relief.

With that seed money, Jill Pardini, 29, a former Fulbright Scholar and Peace Corps volunteer, founded Soccer Without Borders in Baltimore. The program uses soccer to connect immigrant and refugee children, primarily in the city's Northeast, and help tutor and mentor them, improve their English skills and keep them physically and emotionally strong.