School creates atmosphere of hope

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The night before leaving for Bowling Brook Prep in the rolling hills of rural, northwest Carroll County, David smoked all the marijuana he had. He vowed it would be the last time.

In the previous four years, the 17-year-old had run the streets of Charles County; he had been arrested for shoplifting, assault and battery and had dropped out of school.

Now, his family and the court were sending him to a place where other young men might help him set a new course.

At Bowling Brook -- part reform school, high school and charm school -- teen-agers who have reached the limits of the juvenile justice system pay attention in class, compete on winning sports teams and pore over college catalogs. Some march in Civil War re-enactments.

"When I went, I was a very angry person," said David, now 21 and a senior at Salisbury State University. "I hated life. I hated the world. I hated my family. I would have been dead by now. I was headed for self-destruction."

Four months into his 10-month stay, David (who asked that his last name not be used) discovered hope at the Middleburg school where hispeers counseled and challenged him to straighten out.

"Once I got to Bowling Brook, they showed me a lifestyle I never knew before. They showed me love, they showed me caring, they showed me success," he said. "I had a vision of making my family proud of me. Every single day I just drove toward that vision."

The school is an exceptionally polite place. Students look visitors in the eye and greet them with a handshake. They answer "yes" in classes, not "yeah." There is no shoving or shouting in the halls.

Offering an alternative to detention centers for boys ages 16 to 19, the state-licensed private school, unique in Maryland, also draws students from Delaware, Pennsylvania and Washington. It tucked away on a former thoroughbred horse farm where seven Preakness winners trained.

At the heart of the program are nightly sessions where students in groups of 13 review the day and their progress. Young men who are making strides act as leaders and instruct newer students. They prod and push each other to do better. Discussions are private, and visitors are not allowed to attend.

"Your peers jump all over you," David said. "It's almost like you're a family."

The school turns peer pressure, which had been a negative influence in the boys' lives, into a positive force, said Michael K. Billingslea, chairman of the board of directors. "We make it positive with athletics and academics and with a culture they can feel safe in."

Lawrence G. Myers, director of juvenile projects at the American Correctional Association, based in Lanham, said peer counseling used in different types of programs across the country. It works because the young men are involved in their rehabilitation, he said.

"The group holds one another accountable," Mr. Myers said. "Plus, you're teaching them to make decisions. You're teaching them responsibility."

"Ours is a very intensive, challenging and unapologetically moralistic approach," said Mike Sunday, executive director and athletic director. "Our goal is to modify and change behavior. We want to demand greatness."

Interest in the school is so high -- the director interviews seven or eight boys for each one that is accepted -- the school plans a campaign this fall to raise $4 million to add three dorms and increase the 39-member student body to 100.

The typical Bowling Brook student already has tried one or two reform programs, Mr. Sunday said; he is from the inner city, is 17 1/2 , has been involved in the juvenile court system since age 14 and could be sent into the adult system if arrested again.

Students were charged with such offenses as selling drugs, destruction of property, auto theft or assault. The school will not accept boys who have been convicted of more violent crimes, such as rape or murder, Mr. Sunday said.

"We try to create a humane and cost-effective alternative to secure institutionalization," he said.

The cost at Bowling Brook is $36,000 per student per year. The cost at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School in Baltimore County, a youth detention center, is about $50,700 per student per year.

Bowling Brook was begun as a haven for homeless boys in 1957, with a bequest from New Windsor resident Raymond I. Richardson. Its focus changed in the early 1980s to serving juvenile delinquents.

Mr. Sunday, 44, has seen many of the changes. A former quarterback for the semi-pro Valley Forge Minutemen football team, he came to the school as a counselor 19 years ago with a teaching degree from Villanova University.

Many of the school's counselor/teachers are former college athletes who coach its wrestling, track, basketball and weightlifting teams. The athletic program has grown in the past five years, and teams compete against area private schools. This year, the wrestling team won a state championship in the 'B' division of the Maryland Independent Schools tournament.

Eighteen-year-old David [Mr. Sunday asked that his last name be withheld] from New Castle, Del., competed on that winning team. He avoided a sentence of seven to 30 days in a maximum security prison on shoplifting and weapons charges by attending the school.

This year, he captured the school record for the best time in the 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs and earned a 1090 on the Scholastic Assessment Test.

"I'm trying to show everybody that I am somebody. I'm not just some fool running on the street," David said. "In order for me to be prosperous, there's guidelines I need to follow. This program is like life."

History teacher and wrestling coach Jim Tavenner said, "These kids have as much potential as anybody else, but they couldn't see what was in their future."

Bowling Brook's annual budget is $1.2 million, most of which comes from per diem contracts with juvenile agencies in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Washington. The school's per diem rate is about $89. There are 32 staff members for 39 students. Most students stay 11 months.

It's hard to measure Bowling Brook's success rate, Mr. Tavenner said. Parole officers sometimes update the staff on former students. Some boys return to drugs and crime immediately. About 80 percent of graduates check in on the school's toll-free line (800-FYI-BOWL), he said.

"More stay out of trouble than not," Mr. Tavenner said.

Students are prepared to enter college or trade school when they leave Bowling Brook, which gives them one less excuse for not succeeding when they leave, said Peter Dodd, education director, math teacher and track coach. Most of the students dropped out of school in ninth or 10th grade.

Three years ago, the school started a push to have students leave Bowling Brook with a high school diploma. In 1992, eight boys earned diplomas. Last year, 33 took the General Educational Development test, 20 passed and 10 of those went to college, Mr. Dodd said.

Track standout David will leave Bowling Brook this month for Lincoln University, near Oxford, Pa., but he said he'll call Bowling Brook for advice if he falters.

"That help is there if I find myself struggling. There's always an alternative. It just feels good that I accomplished something, something for me to hold on to."

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