Grant will help secure more mentors, services at school

Federal education officials will send more than $350,000 to Baltimore's Renaissance Academy High School to help students and staff recover from the stabbing death of a student in a classroom last year.

The U.S. Department of Education said the Project School Emergency Response to Violence grant will help the West Baltimore school hire additional staff — including more mentors for its highly praised "Seeds of Promise" mentoring program, which supports its majority African-American male student population in one of the city's most violent neighborhoods.

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Renaissance has worked to re-establish a safe learning environment after a series of violent incidents that troubled the school last year.

Ananias Jolley, 17, was stabbed in a third-floor classroom days before Thanksgiving and died in December. His schoolmate Donte Crawford, also 17, was charged with his murder and is in jail awaiting trial.

Jolley's death was one of three the school mourned in as many months.

Renaissance student Darius Bardney, 16, was killed in January in what police have described as an accidental shooting. Daniel Jackson, 17, was shot and killed in February, shortly after he dropped out of school.

"Such tragic, senseless acts of violence disrupt the schools where our students learn and the communities where they live," Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said of Ananias' death.

In a statement announcing the grant, King said the Education Department was "committed to helping Renaissance Academy's students, teachers and families recover and to re-establish safe learning environments where all children can focus on getting a great education — free from fear."

The Project SERV grant is one of two awarded by the Education Department's Office of Safe and Healthy Students to the Baltimore school system this year.

The office has awarded more than $40 million to 139 grantees since 2001. Grantees have included the Newtown Public School District in Connecticut following the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Baltimore was awarded $293,000 in January to help city schools recover after the Freddie Gray unrest. That grant was split among the five West Baltimore schools, including Renaissance, that officials said were affected most negatively by the unrest.

The school system, in partnership with the Baltimore City Health Department, is also in the running for more than $2.3 million from the federal government for mental health services for 13 schools in West Baltimore.

New schools CEO Sonja Santelises, who has identified boosting mental health services and trauma training in schools as a priority of her administration, called the grant "invaluable" in helping Renaissance and its partners support the school in the new school year.

"To succeed academically, students need to know not only that schools are safe and secure but that there are people and resources at their schools to support them in very difficult times," Santelises said. "This is true for all students, but at Renaissance Academy those needs are particularly acute."

Nikkia Rowe, principal at Renaissance Academy, said she was grateful for the continuous support from city school administrators and from community partnerships like the Promise Heights initiative at the University of Maryland School of Social Work.

"As we all know, healing is a process, and the additional funding will assist us in the healing," Rowe said.

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The Seeds of Promise program currently employs four mentors for about 80 youth. The grant will fund two more mentors.

Corey Witherspoon, a Seeds of Promise mentor, said the additional mentors will help as the school welcomes a new batch of mentees this year.

"The mentoring is 24-7," Witherspoon said. "I'm doing homework just managing the schedules of the kids … to keep up with them."

Witherspoon, who attempted to stop Ananias from bleeding out in Renaissance's hallway last year, said his presence is still everywhere — in the conversations of students who remember him and on the blue-and-white shirts printed last school year that read "Graduate for Jolley."

"We're all still aware of Jolley. But now it's like, what are we going to do now?" Witherspoon said. "We've got to change the outcomes, and what better way than investing. With this grant, there are so many possibilities."

The grant will also fund training for staff with a focus on trauma. The school will also hire a door monitor and a staff member responsible for home visits to students who are chronically absent because they are too afraid or angry to come to school.

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