Around 18 two-year-olds get ready to begin school at the Loyola Early Learning Center. (Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun video)
It seemed every morning the Rev. Bill Watters opened his newspaper, there was another story about the failing Baltimore city schools. It was the early 1990s, and studenttest scores were abysmal, funding was inadequate and school infrastructure was in disrepair.
Watters, a Jesuit priest, said the drive to foster education is part of his DNA. So he set out to open a school he believed would better serve Baltimore's largely low-income, minority student population.
Then he started another school. And another.
"I really feel God has placed me here to make it possible to light a candle in the darkness," said Watters, an assisting priest at Saint Ignatius Catholic Community in Mount Vernon. "There is a lot of darkness around, but I want to show there's goodness in this world."
His latest effort, the Loyola Early Learning Center, opened its doors to 18 two-year-olds on September 12. It will eventually serve children ages two through pre-kindergarten. Watters, 83, hopes it will follow the success seen at Saint Ignatius Loyola Academy, which has educated middle school-aged boys since 1993, and Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, established in 2007. Both aim to provide disadvantaged students with a high-quality education. The high school boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate.
Tuition for students at the new center is being covered by a team of benefactors who each committed to fund full $12,500 scholarships annually for three years. The funding model is similar at the other two schools.
Another group of twelve donors — Watters calls them the Twelve Apostles — put up $250,000 each to get the early learning center up and running.
The building at the corner of St. Paul and Madison streets required $1.5 million in renovations. It once housed the Bell Telephone Co. and now is home to colorful classrooms filled with books, play structures and posters teaching the alphabet, colors and shapes.
"Father Watters has the vision to be able to look at the needs in the city and make institutions come to life to address those needs," said John Ciccone, president of Saint Ignatius Loyola Academy.
Jacquelyn Madison took her son, August, to meet his new teacher before the grand opening. August ran around the lobby, a miniature cartoon backpack strapped to his back, and tossed a football with his older brother, Kolby, who just started fifth grade at Saint Ignatius.
Madison considers the opportunities for her boys to attend Jesuit schools free of charge "a blessing." She's a single mother who works as an EMT for the city health department. She was spending $235 weekly on daycare for August.
She sees her the education of her sons as a way to "change the cycle" of violence that touches the lives of many young black men in Baltimore.
Madison lost a cousin to gunfire two years ago. He had been the only consistent male figure in Kolby's life, she said, which is a role the 10-year-old boy now must fill for his younger brother.
Kolby has learned to tie a tie since starting at the Jesuit academy in Federal Hill, Madison said, as the boy puffed his chest proudly beside her.
"I just want them to grow up to be good men," Madison said. "I don't want him to think the lifestyle of the streets is the only way."
Every child enrolled at the early learning center is black, and would qualify for free-or-reduced lunch. At Saint Ignatius, 92 percent of students are black. Last year's incoming class came from families with an average household income of $25,000.
Watters, who is white, said he is cognizant of the Jesuits' painful connection to slavery.In 1838, priests at the Jesuit-founded Georgetown University sold 272 slaves to help pay off the university's debts.
One way he believes Jesuits can make restitution for the past, he said, is to "reach out to black brothers and sisters and say, 'We want to support you.' "
The sense of support for students among Watters' schools in Baltimore is what sets them apart from others in the city, said Abraham Attenoukon, a Saint Ignatius alumnus who now teaches sixth grade there. The school becomes a second family for its students, officials say.
Attenoukon is one of five alumni teaching at the academy this year. Watters said their presence inspires students.
Center administrators hope to grow enrollment to nearly 60 children by 2019. They plan to offer parents Saturday classes focused on topics such as nutrition, resume-writing and the importance of reading to children, director Erica Meadows said.
"Our goal is to really help the whole family," Meadows said.
Research shows preschool participation better prepares students for future schooling. Watters hopes the education young children receive at the center readies them for the Jesuit "educational ecosystem" he envisions beginning in early child care and continuing through Cristo Rey.
The curriculums at the middle and high school are rigorous. Saint Ignatius students attend for 9 ½ hours a day, 11 months a year. Cristo Rey students also work one day per week at a corporate internship at companies such as T. Rowe Price and Under Armour.
Because of its demanding curriculum, Cristo Rey has struggled in the past to keep students through all four years. The school has programs aimed at boosting retention rates. The school was criticized last year for barring some seniors who were repeatedly late for school from walking in the graduation procession.
Every student who graduated from the school has been accepted to college, said Bill Heiser, its president.
The "ripple effect" Watters started by opening these schools will be felt for generations to come, Heiser said. As the students continue graduating from college, he said, they will be role models for their children and grandchildren to do the same.
"You could talk to literally hundreds of people who stand alongside Father Watters and believe in his mission," Heiser said. "At the heart of his vision for every school is how important good education is to students that haven't always had access to it."
Watters sits on the board of each of the schools. With the opening of the new learning center, about 500 students will be enrolled this year at a school started by Watters.
There's room for more, he says. Perhaps an elementary school that would bridge the final gap.
"Three schools might not be enough," Watters said.