Program to bolster Baltimore students from cradle to career

Baltimore school op-ed: One suffers a double whammy when black and male.

The only high school in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Upton/Druid Heights has been spared closure. As Erica Green reported on Nov. 10, city schools CEO Gregory Thornton reversed an initial recommendation to close Renaissance Academy given its commitment to improve and in light of an outpouring of support led by the University of Maryland School of Social Work. Students, parents, staff and our nonprofit and faith-based community partners made themselves heard in vowing to address district leaders' initial concerns about achievement, attendance and other factors that contribute to a school's success.

Renaissance Academy is one of five public schools in Upton/Druid Heights that are part of the University-led Promise Heights initiative. We are a U.S. Department of Education Promise Neighborhood grantee (the only one in Baltimore) taking a dual generation approach, working with children and their families to provide services from cradle to college and career. We are also the lead community partner for all five schools under the community school strategy managed by the Family League of Baltimore. Among the 1,900 children in Promise Heights, this journey to adulthood is hardest for the boys in a poor neighborhood that is predominantly African-American.

At Renaissance, boys make up two-thirds of the 330 students, a majority of whom live in the 21217 and 21201 zip codes — two of the city's poorest. They often live in extreme poverty, and families struggle to meet even basic needs. Students fairly quickly begin to lag academically, and by high school are often several grades behind. Youth, particularly the boys, are caught between the streets and the often too-distant promise of an education. We know that the streets win more than we'd like.

One suffers a double whammy when black and male. Compared with black females, they are three times more likely to be suspended, their high school graduation rate is 9 percent lower, and they are half as likely to receive a college degree. On every measure of educational attainment African American males fare the worst. They score below all girls of any racial or ethnic group and below all boys of any other racial ethnic group and, despite waves of reform, their situation hasn't changed appreciably in the past 30 years.

To meet the needs of the young men at Renaissance Academy, the School of Social Work obtained a $720,000 grant through the Maryland State Department of Education and has worked with Principal Nikkia Rowe to create Seeds of Promise, which expands her mentor/student cohort model to after-school hours and summer. Components include data monitoring and evaluation to assess effectiveness; a Community School Coordinator who is a licensed, master's degree social worker qualified to provide mental health services; after-school programming for credit recovery and enrichment; a summer bridge program for incoming freshman; SAT prep; Restorative Practices training for all faculty and Daily Circles for students; and service learning to see that students meet community service requirements for graduation. For the latter, five students helped build a playground at Gilmor Elementary School last month.

Four black male mentors work with about 80 black male students at Renaissance. While the mentors started one year ago, and Seeds of Promise only last winter, the model has resulted in progress.

According to the October 2015 Baltimore City Public Schools Climate Report, Renaissance students report a 20-point increase in feeling safe (71.2 percent from 51.5 percent); more students report that bullying is not a problem (65.9 percent from 48.1 percent); students report an increase of respect for each other (60 percent from 42 percent); and staff report feeling safer (61 percent from 44 percent).

Renaissance graduation rates are higher than BCPS overall, and five students who have begun attending the "Divided Baltimore" class at the University of Baltimore each expect to earn three hours of college credit. Dean Roger E. Hartley of UB's College of Public Affairs was among those who asked the BCPS to spare Renaissance, testifying to seeing "the energy and work of this terrific school."

Renaissance has the backing of not just one but two anchor institutions, with primary support from the SSW's home, the University of Maryland, Baltimore, which since 2009 has helped secure over $6 million for services at the public schools in Promise Heights. Supporters who wrote to the BCPS include the Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway, Sr., senior pastor of Union Baptist Church and co-chair of Promise Heights' community advisory board; Roscoe Johnson III, executive director of Druid Heights Community Development Corporation; City Councilman Eric Costello, Eleventh District; and Zeke Cohen, executive director of The Intersection, which partners with Renaissance in teaching civic engagement.

Promise Heights needs time to make sure our evidence-based programming is effective, and we will endeavor during the next year to work with Principal Rowe, staff, students, families and the BCPS to make changes to ensure a positive environment for teaching and learning at Renaissance Academy.

Bronwyn Mayden is executive director of Promise Heights and assistant dean at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. Her email is bmayden@ssw.umaryland.edu.

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