David Yeager hunches over his geography homework as Sal Campo hunches over him. Every little distraction beckons, from the smells of supper to the other boys working at the dining-room table. But David, 12, knows the reward for finishing: a trip home for a birthday dinner with his mother.
For David and five unrelated boys from different parts of town, a former convent in East Baltimore is a new kind of home -- a place where nightly chores are posted on the wall, homework time is mandatory and staff workers such as Campo, not parents, loom to make sure schoolwork is done.
Called Boys Hope Baltimore, the home is an experiment in how changing a young person's circumstances can change his life.
Founded 25 years ago by a Jesuit priest in St. Louis, Boys Hope Girls Hope, a nonprofit organization based in Bridgeton, Mo., has opened 38 homes in 17 U.S. cities and in Brazil, Guatemala and Ireland. The Baltimore home, opened last spring without fanfare, plans a dedication ceremony today.
Unlike many group homes, the program doesn't accept state or federal money. Nor does it take children who are in state custody, as foster children or because they have committed a crime. The aim is to take in kids ages 9 to 14 who are academically able -- but in poor families or rough neighborhoods -- and help them make it to college.
For the most part, the students are here not because they have to be, but because they want to be.
"If you need help, everyone has a tutor right there," said Anthony Cook, a 14-year-old resident who moved in five months ago. "You have a lot of rules here ... But I know it's for the best."
If a student is accepted into the program, his tuition to attend private or parochial school is paid by Boys Hope Girls Hope, using scholarships and financial aid. If a student makes it to college, the organization pays for that, too, although students must work once they're 16 to contribute. In Baltimore, each boy costs the group between $30,000 and $35,000 a year, including tuition.
In exchange, students must follow strict rules. There are set times for homework, chores, and sleep, and a curfew of 6 p.m. on weekdays unless there's a school activity or family occasion. Television is limited, and horseplay is discouraged. Violence, drug or alcohol use and cursing can lead to dismissal, though Chuck Roth, executive director, said staffers will try suspensions, counseling and treatment before evicting anyone.
Parents voluntarily send their children to live at the homes, which are tended by four full-time house parents. When parents want to visit, phone, or take the children out of the program completely, they may do so. The boys go home at least one weekend a month, for family events, and to attend religious services.
Carolyn Purvis, a single mother of three, found out about the program while her family was staying at Sarah's House, a transitional shelter in Anne Arundel County. Laid off from her job as a dispatcher, she didn't see how she could afford to send her 12-year-old twin boys, Michael and Marc Franklin, to private school or college.
"I struggled with the fact that they were not going to be living with me," she said. "I almost didn't let them go. But I had to come out of myself and think about them."
Michael was wary at first, too -- he'd seen a story on television about a group home where children were abused. But after a visit, he put aside his fears.
After moving into the house in July, Michael and Marc wrestled with homesickness and adjustments to Mother Seton Academy, their new school. But they say they're basically happy and want to stay. They attend church with their mother every Saturday, and call her every day -- sometimes several times.
With a $10 million fund-raising campaign under way, Boys Hope Girls Hope plans to open 20 more homes in the United States over the next decade, including a girls' home in Baltimore within the next year or so.
The group's approach has attracted support from organizations such as the Abell Foundation, which gave a $170,000 grant to start a home in Baltimore.
Abell President Robert C. Embry Jr. said he was impressed with Boys Hope Girls Hope's track record. "There are many kids who just have to be gotten out of their environment," Embry said.
Many students, however, don't stay at Boys Hope Girls Hope through high school.
Of the 1,050 children who have entered Boys Hope Girls Hope nationally since 1977, 56 have graduated from college. About90 are in college, and 68 others started college but didn't finish. About 200 students are living in homes now.
The rest of the students -- about 60 percent -- end up leaving the program before they have finished high school. Sometimes parents' financial positions improve, or a family moves to another town. And sometimes, a child won't comply with the rules and is asked to leave, said Paul Minorini, the group's president and chief executive officer.
Statistics on those students are sketchy -- and weren't kept until the 1990s, Minorini said. The group tutors some students after they leave the houses. That's the case in Baltimore, where two boys were asked to leave this year -- but are receiving help, he says.
"We're not the type of program that is easily measured by quantitative statistics in terms of teaching kids family values and work and discipline," Minorini said. "That's where I think we make our real impact. It's creating good people."
That's not to say the process is always harmonious.
On a recent afternoon, several of the boys bound about the house, excited by the presence of visitors. The twins had left their work at school, and needed someone to take them to get it.
Devon Brown, 14, lounges on a couch in a defiant mood.
"Sometimes I want to get put out," he says. 'They make you do things you don't want to do." His chief complaint: having to attend Archbishop Curley, an all-boys' school. He also doesn't like the "big van" that's used to pick the older boys up from the movies -- it's downright uncool.
His mother, Monique Tobin, tells a different story. When she asks Devon whether he wants to come home. "He always says he wants to stay," she says.
At dinner, Devon continues his rebellious act. When Mark McDonald, a house staffer, asks him to clear his place, he sits. After being ignored for a while, he quietly complies.
He complains again about having to go to a boys' school. "You know what they are going to turn me into?" he asks.
McDonald doesn't miss a beat. "An educated young man," he replies.