Legacy of Baraka school is mixed

Nearly eight years ago, its last class of students left the streets of Baltimore for an education in Africa that was meant to change the course of their lives. Yet the uneven legacy of the Baraka School continues to unfold.

This month, one of the young men featured in the well-regarded documentary "Boys of Baraka" stood before a judge in a courtroom, where he was indicted on federal drug-conspiracy charges.

The story of Romesh Vance is not unique. Other former Baraka students have been gunned down, joined gangs and followed a path the school tried to lead them away from.

Charles G. Pratt was shot and killed in Cherry Hill last year; police said he had joined a gang. Donte Bellamy came home from Kenya and went through two schools before hitting the streets, selling drugs and ending up fatally shot on an East Baltimore street corner.

"Every child is unique in their situation," said Robert C. Embry, president of the Abell Foundation, which funded the experimental school. "The child was somewhere else for the years before Baraka. You can't replace those 12 years. All you can do is try and make things better."

For many Baraka alumni, things did get better.

Bellamy's friend Daniel Mercer started a clothing business after returning from Baraka. Levon Andrews is working as a counselor at the Center for Talented Youth in Los Angeles, and Tyron Young is expected to graduate from Morehouse College and pursue a doctorate in education. De'Von Brown is a rising junior at the Maryland Institute College of Art studying film production.

"Everyone has to start somewhere, and my start was from the Baraka School," said Brown, 20, who is filming a documentary this summer about murals in Baltimore.

"It was such a great experience. I think seeing the world is important to the development of a person," he said, but some of the others "just got trapped in this situation again when they got back."

The program, which began in 1996, took about 20 disadvantaged middle school-age boys each year to a boarding school in Kenya where, for two years, they were immersed in activities meant to improve their social skills and academic performance.

The Baraka School was forced to close in 2003 because of political unrest in Kenya, sending the boys back into the Baltimore school system after facing different obstacles in the Kenyan outback.

"If we had the money, we'd have 20, 30 or 40 Baraka Schools," Embry said, adding that if the students could have had more time at the school, they would have benefited more.

He said the struggling kids recruited by the school needed to get out of the city. "They were much safer — out of the drug culture, out of the gun culture."

Besides removing the boys from their troubled neighborhoods and providing them with a unique opportunity abroad, Embry said the school succeeded at raising the boys' academic achievement.

According to a 2002 evaluation of the Baraka School prepared for the Baltimore school board, state test results showed that before attending Baraka, the students had a cumulative pass rate of 63.2 percent in reading and 26.3 percent in mathematics. After Baraka, the boys had cumulative pass rates of 84.2 percent and 42.1 percent.

More recently, the Abell Foundation reported that as of June 2009, of the 89 students who completed the Baraka program, 44 earned high school diplomas and 11 earned GEDs. The 62 percent graduation rate is near the overall graduation rate for city school students. The foundation did not have current records on the number of Baraka students who went on to college.

But for all the school's successes, some students remained out of reach.

Vance, a member of Baraka's last class, made his initial appearance in federal court this month for charges relating to the distribution of heroin and crack cocaine in and around the Gilmor Homes public housing complex in West Baltimore.

On his court date, no family showed up. With his arms clasped behind his back, Vance stood between his public defender and another man, Jasmine Brunson, 28, who faced similar charges, raising his head to answer "yes, sir," to federal Magistrate Judge James K. Bredar.

"Those that lacked mentors, parents, grandparents, and caregivers to foster their newfound independence, pride, and world view struggled," said former Baraka School teacher Daniela Lewy.

When Vance returned from Kenya, he moved out of his mother's house to live with a friend and began skipping school.

"I believe he was a really good child," said Tynette Robinson, 41, who took Vance into her home when he was 14. She said Vance's father was imprisoned most of his life, and as for his mother, "he never wanted to stay with her."

And the school "didn't do nothing for him," Robinson said. "He needed love from his mother."

"He could've done better, though," she said. "He was real intelligent."

Brown, the MICA film student who was also a member of the last Baraka class, gives the school credit for changing his life, but he is confident that he would have been successful even if he had not attended.

When asked about Vance and some of the others that have not had the success he's had, Brown said, "It's sad that they are struggling, but I could say that for a lot of other kids."

After middle school, Brown went on to graduate from the Academy for College and Career Exploration in Hampden, where he thrived. He became the student class president and led a protest against school uniforms. Brown said he didn't mind the uniforms but that he had to side with his constituents.

But it was through the release of the Baraka documentary that Brown began to make contacts in the industry, as well other connections, including Maryland first lady Katie O'Malley. At the time, O'Malley, who was handling truancy issues as a juvenile judge, invited him to join her as she made her rounds speaking to the young offenders. It was then that Brown began passing out his contact information, encouraging kids to give him a call.

"The ones that call you back are the ones that want to change," he said. And he's heard from many of them. Brown has now started making speaking appearances around the country, including earlier this summer when he spoke at a middle school graduation in Chicago.

"A lot of times, people in the city get caught up in the 'I have a drug-addicted mother … or whatever," said Brown, who faced similar circumstances. "I try to inspire them to be better. I keep it real. I tell them that society wants them to fail," but that in the end, "it's up to them."

Mary Humes, 66, Brown's grandmother, who still scolds him for texting on his phone during a conversation, said "he has grown up mature, dependable." Of the young man still living under her roof, Humes said, "the world is De'Von's. Whatever he wants, I know he can accomplish it."

When Brown was 4, he and his siblings moved into his grandparents' Caroline Street rowhouse after his drug-addicted mother could no longer care for them. As a child, he was a self-described "class clown" and had a knack for getting kicked out of class.

"He was spending more time outside of classrooms instead of inside," said Humes. "He liked attention."

But one day, the young teen came into the house yelling, "Grandma, you've got to send me to Africa," she recalled.

She was unsure about the program, but she worried about her grandson's future even more.

Brown said that not only did he learn discipline at the school, but he and the other boys also were treated "just as kids, not pressure from other people."

And now, he's finishing school and doing marketing for Taharka Brothers ice cream, a business that hires young men to help teach them entrepreneurship skills. He's also hoping to score internships in Los Angeles to prepare for his film career, but he's also considering running for City Council.

"I'll be like Arnold Schwarzenegger," he said jokingly.

While his experience at the school and being a part of the documentary have helped open doors for him, Brown said he still would have become a college graduate.

"I'd be another kid doing well," he said, but "overlooked — the city has a lot of those kids."

jkanderson@baltsun.com

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