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Even in retirement, she takes kids under her wing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When Magdalene Barber Fennell was graduating from high school, no one ever talked to her about college. Not a teacher. Not a counselor. No one. But when she took her place among the Douglass High School Class of 1947, she soon realized that someone had plans for her.

Unbeknown to the young Miss Barber, she had been chosen to receive a $50 award given by the Zeta Phi Beta sorority to attend Morgan State College.

With a 30-year career in education behind her and two masters degrees to her name, Mrs. Fennell now says proudly: "I'm so glad that they did that for me."

Now it's her turn. And although Mrs. Fennell has been helping young people for more than a decade in her retirement, what she and her husband, Harold, have decided to do for 31 fifth-graders at Hilton Elementary School goes beyond the classroom.

The Fennells have invested $100 for each child as a scholarship fund in which the students will share when they graduate from high school. High school diploma in hand, each member of the "Hilton Education Club" will receive a check -- "hopefully," the Fennells say, to be used for college or for some kind of technical job training.

It's nourishment for a seed, an incentive to keep learning, a chance for the boys and girls in Class 05-02 to prove that they are all the North Baltimore couple believe them to be -- enthusiastic, thirsty for knowledge, winners.

"I guess we fell in love with this class. I don't think they're different from any other class. But I'm hoping they feel they're different," said Mr. Fennell, a retired city employee who says he's been going to school all his life. "You don't have to have a lot of talent or ability to show a child that you care. Because they never forget. Years after, they will remember somebody who took a little time with them."

Mrs. Fennell remembered the women from Zeta Phi Beta. And there were others during her 60-plus years who made a difference.

"You give back what you get," said Mrs. Fennell, a former teacher, principal and administrator in the city school system. "We're all here together. And particularly with African-American children . . . we who have the ability and the means and the time should help them. We're hoping other people will be inspired to do something."

The children in Class 05-02 inspired the Fennells.

Last fall Mrs. Fennell volunteered to work at Hilton Elementary as part of a youth project sponsored by the Baltimore chapter of the Continental Societies, a national service organization of women devoted to assisting disadvantaged youths. It wasn't the first time she had volunteered with kids. Mrs. Fennell and other Continentals had helped a class of high schoolers understand the business world -- how to apply for a job, what to wear on an interview.

Before she entered Jean Sanifer's fifth-grade class, Mrs. Fennell wasn't sure what she would find. She had read newspaper headlines about the state of the city schools: beleaguered, underfunded, overwhelmed by societal ills.

"There are so many other distractions we didn't have," said Mrs. Fennell, who picked up her second masters degree, from Loyola College, on the same day her son, Carlton, received his first. "The level of violence in the community, the drugs, the broken homes, hunger."

From October to December Mrs. Fennell traveled every Wednesday from her North Baltimore condominium to the Hanlon Park school, where more than half of the school's 700 students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch or breakfast. A former high school teacher, Mrs. Fennell deliberately chose to work with fifth-graders because they were the oldest youngsters in the school.

"I always thought of elementary-school kids as little things squirming all around," said Mrs. Fennell, who retired in 1982.

She learned otherwise.

"The class was so well-behaved. They were neat. They were clean. And they seem to care about each other," said Mrs. Fennell, the first among eight siblings to graduate from college. "They could discuss things. I was amazed at the maturity of the answers I would receive."

Like the day she brought in stamps for the Christmas cards the children were sending to their pen pals at a senior citizens complex in West Baltimore. The stamp featured a young black man, Jan E. Matzeliger, and Mrs. Fennell asked if anyone knew who he was. Sure enough, someone did -- he invented a machine in 1883 that revolutionized shoe manufacturing.

"When she came home, she was so impressed" with the children, her husband said, "so enthusiastic about the class. She said, 'They're so bright. They're so responsive. They seem to be so hungry in their learning.' So I had to go see."

What Mr. Fennell saw made him want to improvise on a commitment the couple had made to help students with their education. In 1985, Mr. Fennell began a scholarship in his wife's name for a Douglass High School student attending Morgan State.

L But "we felt we needed to start earlier," Mrs. Fennell said.

"Elementary-school children, so that their trip through high school and college would be easier," said Mr. Fennell, as the couple sat recently in their dining room. "These children are not going to have a problem with studies because they've developed a thirst for learning and we intend to keep them hungry and thirsty."

When the Fennells told the children of Class 05-02 about their "incentive plan," the questions began.

"Suppose I move away?" one child asked.

The offer is good no matter where you go to school, they were told, as long as they keep in touch and let the couple and the Continentals, who have agreed to help with the project, know where they are. If a child drops out of the project, the Fennells explained, that share will remain in the pot.

In 1999, the fund is to be divided equally among the students who have graduated from high school, they told the children.

"Nobody's going to get my money," declared one child.

"You mean I'm going to get a check with my name on it?" another asked.

"Yes, with your name on it," answered Mrs. Fennell.

While the checks the youngsters receive at graduation might not pay for much more than college textbooks, the Fennells feel their cause will be served just by knowing that "our kids" are continuing their educations.

"The idea is to instill that kind of thinking in the children and the parents," Mr. Fennell said.

Already, the fund has grown to slightly more than $4,000 by virtue of earnings from a mutual fund. While the couple says they may add to the fund over the years, they said they will accept no other contributions to it.

The Fennells have dubbed their offer an "incentive plan." But their commitment to Class 05-02 is a challenge: a challenge to the parents of these fifth-graders, who will be scattered to four different middle schools next year; to the teachers they will meet in the years ahead; to the students themselves, who must stay in school; and to the community, to others of "modest means" to give something back.

"Boy, if we had three persons doing this, all of our fifth-graders would be the beneficiaries," said Elaine T. Davis, Hilton's principal.

The Fennells know their plan is ambitious. They've already started to make the kind of ties they hope will bind. They hired a photographer to take a portrait of the group. While wintering in Arizona, Mrs. Fennell wrote monthly to the class. She shipped the students oranges from her backyard tree.

Parents apparently recognize their stake in the project: Parents of 28 of the 31 children are serving on a committee to plan an annual reunion for the Hilton Education Club.

And the students appear to realize the importance of staying in touch with the Fennells.

"I'm working hard, getting good grades and preparing for testing," Daiyah Pyatt wrote to the couple in March.

Tavon Nash marveled at the oranges "with no seeds" and offered his new telephone number.

"We have moved up in math we're in decimals," Angela Greene told the couple in her March 25 letter. "Well I have to go now there is nothing more to say so long till I write my next letter."

Once he had finished his letter to the couple, Anthony Brown realized he'd forgotten something:

"P.S. Do not forget to write back!"

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