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Jacques Kelly: SEED School's roots deepen in Baltimore's former Southwestern High

Jacques Kelly: SEED School's roots deepen in Baltimore's former Southwestern High
Kevin Ridgely, managing director, and Katie del Carmen Byram, director of development, in the library of The SEED School of Maryland, which opened in fall 2008 and has 400 students from grades 6 to 12. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

It may not be fully visible from the roadway, but there’s a boarding school with an enrollment of 400 students on a hill in Southwest Baltimore.

Located behind the Mount Olivet Cemetery on Font Hill Avenue, the 52-acre campus of the SEED School of Maryland is home to students in grades six to 12 who arrive each Sunday evening from communities stretching from Salisbury to Frederick.

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There are separate girls’ and boys’ dormitories. The head of school lives on campus in a faculty residence.

Affiliated with the SEED Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit that also operates schools in Washington and Miami, the SEED School describes itself as “Maryland’s first and only public, college-preparatory boarding school.” Officials say its concept is simply that “some students need and deserve a 24-hour learning model to reach their full potential.”

The students must come from a single-parent home or live on public assistance or with a non-custodial guardian. Some have challenging home environments, some have a history of truancy that has left them needing to catch up on their studies.

“The kids who arrive here average three grades behind,” said Katie del Carmen Byram, the school’s development director.

There’s an annual lottery to gain admission to the school, which is in its 10th year.

This SEED took root in a problematic location. It’s housed in what’s left of the former Southwestern High School, which opened in September 1971 and closed 35 years later.

When it debuted, there were hopes the new $10 million Southwestern High would ease overcrowding at Rock Glen Junior High and Edmondson Senior High. Within days of the school’s opening, though, police and plainclothes detectives were called to the campus to quell what The Sun described as “racial tensions” at the facility. “New School Reflects Problems of the City,” said an article in The Sun.

The city gave up on Southwestern in 2006 after decades of declining school-age population, and listed the building as surplus property in May 2007.

SEED’s administrators realized the potential that old and battered Southwestern held. They got busy taming the sprawling T-shaped main building that was designed in the 1970s-era brutalist architecture style. They demolished a long classroom wing and built the boys’ and girls’ dorms. They restored the school’s auditorium and gym and upgraded lighting.

The renovated campus reflects the $50 million that has been invested in it. SEED has found support from private donors: The Baltimore Ravens’ late owner Art Modell and his wife, Pat; New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and his wife, Anne; and philanthropists including Mitchell P. Rales, Jack and Andie LaPorte, Harry Lebow, Edward Brody and C. Sylvia Brown have been among its patrons. Local charitable foundations also help fund the school.

“We operate as our own educational authority and report directly to the Maryland Department of Education,” said del Carmen Byram.

The school opened in 2008 and began graduating students in 2015. Counselors work with SEED students to help find colleges where they can get financial aid.

“We want our kids to leave college with no more than $30,000 in debt. We prefer they have zero debt,” del Carmen Byram said.

Officials say SEED’s counselors continue to work with graduates after they move on from the Southwest Baltimore campus. In three years, more than 80 percent of SEED graduates remain enrolled in college.

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Because there are more applicants than space, there is a waiting list for admission. The SEED School will host an open house 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday for prospective sixth-grade students. A lottery will be held May 9 in the auditorium.

Currently, the majority of students are from Baltimore City, followed by Prince George’s, Baltimore, Harford and Anne Arundel counties. There are students from 14 of Maryland’s 23 counties.

“The lottery starts with each county for which we have an applicant,” said Kevin P. Ridgely, the school’s managing director and chief financial officer.

The package of tuition, room and board is free with the assistance of state, local and private funding. The school has a 99-year lease from the City of Baltimore.

In many ways, SEED School of Maryland operates as any other educational facility in the city. It has has athletic teams that compete on its broad fields near the AMTRAK right-of-way. Its cross country team uses the nearby Gwynns Falls Trail.

Yet the campus setting and its boarder component make it a unique facility.

“We’re so remote — yet we’re located right in the city,” Ridgely said .

The campus even has a bit of an issue with wildlife. “The geese love our football field and deer stand at our gates,” he said.

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