About a dozen years ago, when the church I attend launched a mentoring program at Baltimore's Dickey Hill Elementary School, my long association with Jabril Leach began. The second-grader had a passion for dinosaurs, a severe speech impediment and a mother in prison — a situation requiring firm boundaries, lest Jabril regard me as a substitute parent. I determined that my role would be to establish trust but not dependency.
So, armed with checkers, some crayons — Jabril loved to draw — and "Ping," a book about a Chinese duck, Jabril and I met week after week in the school's hallway and got to know each other. At the end of that first year I gave him "Ping" and said I'd be back in the fall. And I was — that fall, and several others.
By our fourth year together, I had heard about TWIGS, an after school program run by the Baltimore School for the Arts. On a rainy Saturday morning I brought Jabril downtown for an interview. He was accepted and so excited that he shouted "I'm going to TWIGS! I'm going to TWIGS!" to a virtual stranger on his way there for the first time. For the next three years, my role was to bring Jabril a sandwich to eat while I drove from Dickey Hill Elementary to the School for the Arts, where he made puppets.
In January of his eighth grade year, on another rainy Saturday, we were again at the school, this time for Jabril's audition as a full-time student. Despite his carefully assembled portfolio of drawings, however, he wasn't accepted.
But, in late spring, a place opened up and Jabril was admitted to the BSFA with the understanding that he attend a special summer program designed to prepare him for the school's rigorous academic standards. He never grasped the commitment needed to meet those standards, however — he truly believed he was studying, when, in fact, he was merely skimming. Lacking the organizational aptitude, study skills, and academic foundation, he foundered once admitted.
Doubtless, the Baltimore School for the Arts gave him a wonderful opportunity, but it was an opportunity akin to sitting me down at a grand piano in Carnegie Hall and saying "There, you've got your chance to be a concert artist." The Baltimore School for the Arts wanted Jabril to know Spanish indirect object pronouns, the themes of "Lord of the Flies" and the solutions to complex equations. But he knew the ravages of lead poisoning, having his arm broken by someone shoving him down the stairs of his elementary school and the revolving door of the judicial system. (I always could tell when his mother was back in his life because his speech impediment worsened.)
Jabril repeated the ninth grade, but then, overwhelmed again, he began cutting classes, got suspended, and on yet another rainy morning, he was asked to leave. The administration's answer to the question of which school he should go to next was to hand his grandfather and me a list of high schools, an act tantamount to handing someone trapped in a five-alarm blaze an operating manual for a fire extinguisher. They took no responsibility for his future.
Soon afterward, my personal life became complicated, and my involvement with Jabril ended until last month, when his great aunt called me. Jabril, she said, is expected to graduate this spring from Forest Park High School, a monumental accomplishment.
But as happy as I am for him, I've never stopped feeling disappointed in the Baltimore School for the Arts. It behaved more like a private school — with the administration's loyalty to the institution, not the individual — than a public school that receives 70 percent of its operating budget from the city school system. Once BSFA chose to accept Jabril, it should have made a bigger effort to understand his circumstances to help him succeed there.
Instead, it appeared more interested in its $6 million endowment and the 100 slots for students who are non-Baltimore residents, paying $5,900 apiece in tuition.
Jabril survived the experience and went on to succeed elsewhere, but only because of his own remarkable fortitude and determination.
As Baltimore welcomes a new superintendent, perhaps the time has come to ask whether the BSFA is intended solely for talented children regardless of where they live, or for the city children whose lives have been shaped by the urban center for which the school is named.
And as a society, we should ask ourselves what kind of a community we are developing when we allow our children to suffer lead poisoning, school violence and absent parents.
In the theater world of the BSFA, there are supposed to be performers and audience members — known as "groundlings." But on the stage of life, children shouldn't have to choose between the two; they should all be players.
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