Before stabbing, high school program tried to reach troubled youths

"We're serving broken children," said Renaissance Principal Nikkia Rowe.

Ananias Jolley and Donte Crawford's lives were supposed to change at Renaissance Academy.

The two 17-year-olds are among 95 black youths taken under the wing of mentors at the West Baltimore high school — which serves a population of predominantly male, at-risk youths. The youths take refuge on the third-floor of the sprawling building from a neighborhood riddled with poverty and crime.

It was in the mentoring program, called "Seeds of Promise," that the two students were offered support and guidance in various aspects of their lives, including how to productively settle conflicts.

Those efforts seemed to unravel when Crawford stabbed Jolley earlier this week. Now Crawford, charged Wednesday as an adult with attempted first-degree murder, is awaiting his initial court appearance. And Jolley is fighting for his life at Maryland Shock Trauma.

Jolley's stepfather, Kelvin Newby, said Wednesday that the teen remained unconscious at the hospital.

"He alive," Newby said. "Still got complications, just got to heal."

Renaissance Principal Nikkia Rowe is praying for Jolley and Crawford. "Both of them are my boys," she said. "I love both of them."

Rowe also feels a renewed commitment to continue the program she started — after watching her own brother benefit from older male role models and studying how the teenage male brain works — to help young men of color break the cycle of violence around them.

The goal of the program is to help the youths overcome social, emotional and educational barriers, and walk across the graduation stage.

"We don't need judgment as a school community," said Rowe, who is in her third year at Renaissance. "What we need is for more people who have a sense of urgency who are passionate about the next generation like my staff to not sit around and judge, but to positively contribute to change the outcome."

In charging documents, police describe how Crawford paced the hallway outside Jolley's biology class, leaning against lockers and looking around as if he was "waiting for staff members and teachers to leave the area," before entering and stabbing Jolley several times.

Jolley stumbled out seconds later and collapsed in front of several students and staff.

The city school police officer who wrote the report described how he encountered the teen "laying in the staircase with his feet pointing east." Jolley was unresponsive, as medics administered first aid and put pressure on his wounds, and fights broke out among other students at the school, according to the report.

Police did not provide a motive for the attack, but said in charging documents that the two had physical and verbal altercations in the past.

"He was on the ground. I saw him," recalled Newby, who learned of the incident from one of his stepson's friends who ran to their rowhouse at McCulloh Homes on Druid Hill Ave. "I keep seeing that picture in my head."

Before that scene unfolded, those who know the boys say they were two teenagers who cracked jokes about each other as they played basketball and got shape-ups at the barber shop together.

Brandon Bull, a barber and coach who runs an after-school program called the Athletics Intelligence Mentorship Basketball Association at Renaissance, acknowledged that they had their teenage conflicts.

"These are two kids who had differences with each other, they fought and made up over and over again," Bull said. "These are the same kids who come and play basketball, they crack on each other, talk about getting girls, and they leave with a smile."

Newby said he is still unsure what might have caused the fight.

"Everybody love him," Newby said. "It's the area of the city. Look where they live at. It's the projects."

Jolley, a junior, liked school and was on the robotics team at Bluford Drew Jemison Stem Academy West, Newby said. The youth occasionally had an attitude, he said, as teenagers do often.

Jolley didn't know what he wanted to do when he graduated, Newby said. "He's just living for the day."

Newby and several of Jolley's friends gathered at the family's home on Wednesday and planned to visit him at the hospital. He said his wife has remained at the hospital with her son.

"It's her baby," he said, adding that Jolley is the second-eldest of her four children.

Bull described Crawford, a sophomore, as more fragile and reserved. He faced difficulties at home, including the death of his grandmother this spring. Still, Bull said, he smiled a lot.

"With pressure, with build-up — sometimes, at some point, with all of this going on — a kid is going to snap," he said.

Cherrall Robinson, 29, who is Crawford's neighbor, said she was shocked to hear about the incident. Robinson said that Crawford lives with his mother and younger brother in a brick rowhouse on Vine Street and that he was always in and out of the house, playing football with kids in the neighborhood.

It was near his home that Crawford was arrested after police said he fled the school following the attack. His clothes were covered in a liquid, suspected to be blood, police wrote.

"It shocks me. He was a nice kid. No trouble," Robinson said.

Seeds of Promise started as an effort to combat the ominous elements that students faced in their communities. In January, Rowe sought to build a support system for students she identified as being "at-risk" or "underserved" after looking at data such as chronic absenteeism, grades and family circumstances.

"We're serving broken children," she said.

Rowe reached out to four young black men who she knew could relate to her students, assigning them 22 mentees each. They were tasked with developing a rapport with the boys and relationships with their families. They are paid for the time; Rowe covers the roughly $100,000 in salaries out of her school's budget.

The mentors served in whatever roles they were needed: a friend, listening to them on the phone at night; a school staffer, intervening in arguments by pulling them out of class; or a father, taking them to church on Sunday.

The mentors are the first people they see when they come to school in the morning, she said, and they end every day with "group circles," where they talk through problems. Their days together can last 12 hours.

"It's like mentoring on steroids," she said.

The school's community partner, Promise Heights at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, helped expand the program. In February, the state awarded the school a three-year, $750,000 grant to start an after-school program that includes academic help and community service projects.

The program has seen youths who were failing every class pass at least three, Rowe said. One student recently found a classmate's phone and sold it, but when confronted by his mentor, he bought it back.

"They are children," Rowe said. "They are going to govern themselves the way they've always been allowed to govern themselves, through impulsivity and not always seeing the full outlook on situations."

Rachel Donegan, program director of Promise Heights, said she believes the program is more valuable than ever before. "In a way it shows that the program is targeted at the right kids," Donegan said. Rowe "should not see this as a failure of the program or of the model. No one program solves the problem."

Rowe is in the process of hiring another mentor for a new cohort of kids.

Antwon Cooper, the senior adviser at Renaissance, served as a mentor to Crawford and several other youths. He and Crawford recently helped build a playground at Gilmor Elementary School.

As he stood near the school Wednesday afternoon, Cooper he said was stunned.

Cooper described Crawford as a passionate, intelligent student who came from a poverty-stricken, troubled life. He could barely read a couple of years ago, but has made strides with the help of a school tutor. "He definitely was trying to be a positive person," Cooper said. "Lately, he'd been more happy than I had seen in awhile."

Cooper said it is hard to keep kids from getting pulled into a life in the streets. "You try to break the curse of the streets that is holding our kids, but it doesn't always work," he said.

Classes were canceled at Renaissance on Wednesday, and it is unclear where students will report on Monday after Thanksgiving break.

The high school has had a tumultuous month. Last week, school police found a loaded handgun on a student who had been involved in an altercation. The student had been assigned a mentor days earlier.

Also this month, the school won a reprieve from a district plan to close its doors at the end of the year — a decision schools CEO Gregory Thornton said he is now reconsidering.

Newby, Jolley's stepfather, said he doesn't know if the teen will return to Renaissance, in part because he doesn't know if it will be open. "I'm just worried about his health right now," he said.

Newby said the family was supposed to have relatives over to their home for dinner on Thanksgiving, but plans are likely to change. "I haven't even started cooking," he said, as he climbed into a minivan that had arrived to take him to the hospital.

Baltimore Sun reporters Kevin Rector and Andrea K. McDaniels contributed to this article.

erica.green@baltsun.com

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