Darius Johnson says he's just an ordinary student, presented with an educational opportunity in his freshman year of high school that led him to extraordinary choices: Johns Hopkins, Columbia, Duke, Princeton, Harvard, Cornell, Stanford and Washington universities, the University of Pennsylvania and Dartmouth College.
The senior at Polytechnic Institute is among the gifted students who have worked their way through the Ingenuity Project, one of two programs that have given Baltimore students a competitive edge in college admissions but now face funding cuts in the city's tightest schools budget in decades.
After years of declining funding, and now a new round of cuts the school board is proposing for next year's budget, schools that host Ingenuity and the International Baccalaureate are looking for alternative sources of money or holding out hope that district leaders will see the value of offerings proven to bring out the best in the brightest students.
Johnson, a first-generation college student raised by a single mother, plans to head to Harvard next year on a Gates-Millennium scholarship, which is to cover his education through a doctorate.
Johnson applied to Ingenuity as a freshman — not because he was "naturally gifted," he said, but because he needed focus. By sophomore year, he was researching a new therapy for HIV patients at Johns Hopkins.
"The work is hard," he said. "But as much as we give in hard work, they give back in opportunity. I hope kids who come after me get the same opportunities."
Ingenuity, a program that engages students at Poly and Roland Park Elementary/Middle and other high-performing schools in a rigorous science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum and research, is one of the budget items that school officials are asking the school board to fund with emergency reserves. The board has rejected that request.
Board members are scheduled to vote on a budget next month.
The Ingenuity program, which serves 534 students in four schools, is also facing a major fundraising hurdle, due in part to dwindling funding from the school system in the last five years.
Next year, it would have to raise more than $600,000, and would require Roland Park to pay a per-pupil fee next year for the first time.
Other schools have paid the $100-per-pupil fee. Roland Park has made financial contributions in other ways: paying for full-time Ingenuity staff, helping maintain the program's computer lab, and funding trips.
Principal Nicholas D'Ambrosio said the school would need to raise money to help cover the roughly $18,000 check the school would have to cut to pay the per-pupil charge next year.
The International Baccalaureate program, available at City College, Mount Washington and Thomas Jefferson Elementary/Middle, offers an internationally recognized curriculum known for its rigor and global focus. It's slated for budget cuts next year in two of the schools.
Mount Washington's IB program is set to receive $100,000 next year, down $31,000 from last year. And the budget at City College, which runs two programs, will decrease by $34,000 to $200,000.
Thomas Jefferson is set for a funding increase, because years of underfunding put the school at risk for losing its IB designation.
The school system says that its scaled-back support for Ingenuity and IB is part of a long-term plan.
"In order to ensure there is a diverse portfolio of school options for students to choose from, City Schools is committed to supporting schools in initiating programs, such as IB and Ingenuity," the district said in a statement.
"However, the intent is that over a period of time these programs will become self-sustainable" through individual school budgets and community partnerships.
The Ingenuity program was started in 1993 by the Abell Foundation, which has continued to financially back the program every year since. Ingenuity officials said the goal was for the program to eventually be fully funded by the school system.
But data show that in the last five years, contributions from the school system have dropped, from $420,000 in 2010 to a proposed $368,000 next year. Next year, the Abell Foundation plans to cut its funding to Ingenuity by $100,000 in order to spread money to other philanthropic causes.
"It's been a tremendously successful program, and we think it's something that the school system should really be doing," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation
Dolores Costello, executive director of Ingenuity, said the program posts good results — 95 percent of graduates go on to four-year colleges, and 90 percent graduate in four years — but it still falls short in areas she said are pertinent to its growth.
Costello said the program could be strengthened by offering professional development for teachers and giving students more opportunity to conduct research in high school. It also needs to expand its services to underrepresented students, such as Hispanic students, who make up just 2 percent of its enrollment.
"We're always working to improve, but funding is limiting all of this," she said.
More importantly, Costello said, the city should invest in its advanced students, as it does in its struggling students.
"This program was designed for students like Darius," she said. "There's an idea that they'll all get along anyway, but the question is, would they be doing as well?"
At City, Principal Cindy Harcum said, students who show that they challenge themselves in the International Baccalaureate program certainly have an edge over their peers. When the 46-year-old program, which operates in 147 countries, shows up on a transcript, she said, it gets a second look.
In recent years, Harcum said, district officials have asked the school to ensure that it is living up to its mission of preparing students for college, and the IB program is a major avenue to do so.
"The return on investment is amazing," Harcum said. "This is a ticket that helps kids get into the selective admission schools, and the money to go to them. Especially for those kids who are first-generation college students, who only hear about going to college around the corner, suddenly, the world has opened up to them completely."
Next year, about 60 percent of the senior class at City is slated to take two or more IB courses.
Unlike Advanced Placement, in which students earn credit by taking an exam, IB credits require labs, investigations, oral arguments, and written papers. Harcum said City's IB program has posted results comparable to those of private schools.
Fifty-six percent of City's IB diploma candidates last year earned a diploma from the program — which requires a slate of advanced courses and exams — compared with 58 percent at St. Paul's School for Boys.
City offers the program to all of its students. Harcum said the school needs an additional $54,000 to cover registration fees, exam fees and training for IB teachers to sustain and grow the program.
"What I would hate to do is sell this to everybody, and then not have enough dollars to back it up," she said.
The financial struggles afflicting programs for gifted students also come amid an increased demand by parents for the district to add the programs to their schools and to enhance those already in place.
Kimberly Moffitt, head of the parent-teacher organization at Thomas Jefferson Elementary/Middle, confronted the school board over the school receiving less funding in recent years than other IB schools — even though it runs the only elementary/middle school program in the state.
"We embraced IB as a community and committed to letting our babies know that there's a lot more that happens in this world outside of what happens in Baltimore City," she said.
Moffitt said the school risked being found noncompliant because it didn't have enough money for required staff, such as an art teacher. After paying required expenses to maintain its designation, the school would have $5,000 to $10,000 to run programs for its 515 students.
"IB is extensive to learn and expensive to maintain, and the district seemed to be running on a shoestring budget to make this happen," she said. "We do it OK, but we could do well."
The school is expected to receive $87,500 in additional funding this year, for a total budget of $200,000, which school officials said aims to ensure an "equitable distribution of funds."
That's welcome news for Jamar Taylor, an eighth-grader at Thomas Jefferson, who chose to attend the school when he moved back from China, where wealthy students attended IB schools.
Taylor said the global perspective at Thomas Jefferson made it easier to transition back to an American school.
"Everyone was a lot more open-minded about my experience," he said. "At another school, they may have made fun of me for living in China, but here they were interested in hearing about the pros and the cons."
He plans to attend Baltimore School for the Arts in the fall. What attracted him to the premier high school was that it was a place he could stand out for thinking differently.
Cutting-edge programs such as IB are what more parents across Baltimore are seeking to keep them invested in the city school system, said Brendan O'Brien, the parent of a first-grader and a third-grader at Federal Hill Preparatory School.
The school's parent-teacher organization campaigned to begin the IB application process this year. O'Brien said the district did not issue a letter of support for the school, which delayed its application. School officials said they never received a proposal.
"It's a wonderful program," he said. "It gets kids thinking outside their own neighborhood. And to have a name-brand program in our neighborhood, it does a lot for all aspects of our life. We want to be able to stand out."
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