Renaissance Academy High grieves after three killings, still sees hope for future

Renaissance Academy High grieves after three killings, still sees hope for future.

Ever since his best friend died in December after police say he was stabbed by a classmate at Renaissance Academy High School, Chris Boykin has become more serious about his studies and tries to keep a low profile to stay out of trouble.

The 17-year-old now wonders if he could become an architect like his friend dreamed of doing.

When Shamar Nicholson's best friend was shot and killed in the hallway of an apartment complex a month later, the Renaissance Academy student also vowed to stick to his studies, for himself and for his friend, another student at the school.

"I am going to do what I am supposed to do, and do it for him," said Nicholson, 17.

While Renaissance Academy students, teachers and staff confront a crushing spate of grief, they find themselves in a surprising posture. They see possibility, even hope. Kids who weren't concerned about academics are now staying after school to study, and many are asking for help in finding jobs — legitimate jobs. They're desperate to escape the fate of their friends.

But school administrators say this moment could be fleeting. They worry that the next tragedy could cement a sense of hopelessness and diminished expectations among a student population faced every day with extreme poverty, violence and the allure of the streets.

Just last week, a recent dropout from Renaissance Academy was shot and killed on a West Baltimore porch. It was the third death of a black youth who had attended the school in as many months.

And so administrators have redoubled their efforts. They put up a dream wall with a mirror near the main office so that students can see reflection of themselves and write about their futures. They opened a deejay room where students can mix music and vent their emotions.

They asked the Department of Justice to work with students on conflict resolution and problem-solving. And Principal Nikkia Rowe has made it her goal to secure summer jobs for all 312 students.

Meanwhile, Baltimore school district officials are exploring whether to relocate Renaissance Academy — it's now on the third floor of Booker T. Washington Middle School — and adopt a charter school model that could impose more rigorous standards and discipline.

The school's scores on standardized tests were far below city and state averages. On the most recent English test, for instance, two-thirds of students received a score of 1, the lowest possible. And last school year, Renaissance Academy had 84 student suspensions and expulsions, a large number for a school of its size.

Its staff members say they always have tried to provide a haven for students, not just an education. It's a place where kids can get a free meal, a warm coat or someone to talk to about problems at home.

In the aftermath of so many student deaths, the staff has been pushed to the limits and seen just how easily a child can end up on the wrong path.

"When you do all you can to reach them and then you lose them, it hits hard," said Corey Witherspoon, part of a team of mentors assigned to the most vulnerable kids at the school. "I'm not their father, but I'm their school father."

They worry the repeated grief could lead some students to become indifferent to what is happening around them. The impact has been multifaceted and stark. Some students became despondent in class while others turned more aggressive. Teachers constantly look for signs that a student might not be adjusting well.

An art teacher sent Boykin to his mentor after he became overcome with sadness during class one day. Boykin said the school is a constant reminder of his friend Ananias Jolley, who was stabbed in class in November and lay in the hallway, bleeding out, until paramedics arrived. Jolley died a month later. Donte Crawford, 18, has been charged with first-degree murder in that incident.

In January, student Darius Bardney, a 16-year-old aspiring rap artist, was shot in a hallway at the Pedestal Gardens housing complex. Police say that the shooting may have been accidental and that it may have happened while he and others were recording a music video. Ballistics testing will help to determine whether he shot himself or someone shot him, police said.

And last week, 17-year-old Daniel Jackson, who attended the school before dropping out in November, was shot while standing on a porch. A police officer on patrol in the neighborhood heard shooting and found Jackson with gunshot wounds.

"I knew them all," Boykin said recently, as he sat in the school cafeteria. "I just want it to stop."

Boykin had been suspended for fighting shortly before Jolley died. He went to Rowe afterward and asked her to let him return.

"I saw in his eyes that he was recommitted, so I took him back," she said.

Students express an intense loyalty to Renaissance Academy, an unexpected school spirit. They say they know teachers and staff care about them, and many worry the recent deaths will tarnish the school's reputation and send the message there's something wrong with the students.

Rowe is even more vocal. She rails against systemic problems, including record-breaking violence in the city that saw an all-time high of homicides per capita last year. In an opinion piece in The Baltimore Sun, Rowe wrote: "If this intentional destruction of the black male were happening anywhere else in the world, it would be called genocide."

Nearly 40 percent of students at Renaissance Academy and another school said in a recent survey that they knew someone who had been killed before they reached their 20th birthday. Last year there were four homicides within two blocks of Renaissance Academy.

Rowe had suggested holding graduation outside the school, imagining the students in brightly colored robes walking through the community to show the importance of education. She abandoned the idea after she said too many students confided they were afraid to walk through the neighborhood. In the end, last year's graduation was held in an auditorium.

Students and staff also worry that the attention on Renaissance Academy could revive talks about closing it. The school was among several slated for closure this fall, but it was taken off the list after protests from local church leaders and the community.

"Everybody wants to talk about the school, but it's not the school," said Daquian Allen, a 18-year-old student. "They care about us here."

Baltimore Schools CEO Gregory Thornton has said he wants to keep the school open but improve outcomes for students.

Rowe, a Baltimore native who has taught or served as an administrator in city schools for 16 years, wants Renaissance Academy to be a place where kids turn in times of need. Though the school is not officially designated by the school system as one for troubled students, it has a reputation of working with kids who are struggling emotionally and academically. Students from across the city can choose to attend.

"All of them need a shot, and I will give them as many chances as I can," Rowe said.

"So many people believe you can throw children away," said Rowe, whom many students call the mother of the school. "But you can't really throw them away. You can attempt to throw them away, and years later you will deal with the consequences in some other way. They can get 1,000 chances because they are kids and they will have mistakes."

Rowe said she knew early in the school year that Jackson might drop out. Jackson had told his mentor that he needed to make money to help his family. The teen said he had plans to get a commercial driver's license to drive a truck and get his family away from Baltimore.

After Jackson stopped coming to school, his mentor, Daijeon Powell, kept in touch to try to convince him to return.

"I was worried about him because of all of the stuff that happens in this city," Powell said. "I didn't want this kind of thing to happen."

The morning Jackson died, texts poured in from students asking if Rowe had heard about "Lil D." Soon students began talking about it on Facebook and other social media. A familiar, anxious feeling welled up in her body, and Rowe left the school for what has become a ritual "ugly cry." It's a way to get herself together so that she can tend to her students because "they need me to stand in strength."

After each death, students sat in circles and were encouraged to talk about how the news made them feel. In Kristen Yoder's art class, students asked basic questions at first. How many times was he shot? Do they know who did it? Why was he shot?

But then the questions turned more personal. How would you feel if I died, one young man asked? Would you come to my funeral? another asked.

The reactions to Jackson's death were more subdued, which worried teachers and staff who became more vigilant for signs that students were repressing their emotions.

When Jolley died, students cried and screamed openly in the hallway. Some lay on the floor; others leaned on friends. The staff went into what they called "triage mode," shutting off offices and classrooms where kids could get private counseling sessions.

"That first day was really intense," said Hallie Atwater, a University of Maryland social worker dedicated to the school. "All you could do was be present. We tried to give the kids as much freedom that day as possible to grieve."

Reminders of Jolley remain throughout the school — a memorial of deflated balloons and stuffed animals, the phrase "Long Live Jolley" written in marker on the floor where paramedics worked to revive him. Graffiti is not allowed in schools, but every time the cleaning staff scrubs the floor, the epitaph appears again the next day.

Shortly after Jolley's death, Rowe showed up with a box of bright turquoise and pink shirts that read "Graduate For Jolley."

Acoyea Booze said that when Rowe pulled them out of boxes, it "woke up the whole school" and provided much-needed hope. The 19-year-old, who was wearing one of the shirts last week, said that students always feel supported at Renaissance but that the deaths have been hard on them.

"There was a lot of crying," he said, "and people just don't understand why it keeps happening,"

Brigitte Baker had thought about pulling her 16-year-old daughter, Tori, out of Renaissance after Jolley was stabbed.

But she kept thinking about the attentive, nurturing staff. What principal gives parents their cellphone number? Whenever her daughter was upset, teachers tried to figure out why. She liked how the mentors paid particular attention to the black male students in the school.

"Never have I ever been anywhere where the staff cared so much about your well-being," the assistant accountant said. "The more I thought about transferring, the more I realized she had everything she needed at Renaissance."

Bardney's mother, Donnetta Williams, said Renaissance Academy staff has continued to reach out to make sure she's coping. She said her son loved the school and that his mentor "stayed on his tail" and helped to keep him focused.

"They got a family kind of love at Renaissance," Williams said.

On a recent morning, a group of young men sat in the deejay room during lunch. One played beats on a keyboard, while Khalil Bridges rapped about the rough streets of Baltimore.

Bridges, 18, is one of the success stories at Renaissance. He admits that he was angry and dismissive and acted out when he first came to the school as a freshman three years ago. His mentor and social workers at the school figured out that he didn't have enough to eat and worried about where he would sleep each night. They helped stabilize his home life, and he has been one of the school's best students since then.

Last week he went to the White House to participate in President Barack Obama's My Brother's Keeper program, designed to support and mentor young men of color and keep them on track for college or employment. Bridges says he caught a glimpse of Obama through a White House window.

His mentor, Antwon Cooper, had taken him to buy a suit for the occasion from an H&M clothing store, and four of his classmates joined him for the trip. On their ride to the train station, their former classmate Jackson was shot.

Bridges said he thinks every day that the same could happen to him.

"I just try to make the best choices I can and do what I need to do," he said.

Baltimore Sun reporters Liz Bowie, Kevin Rector and Erica L. Green contributed to this article.

amcdaniels@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/ankwalker

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