Sister Mary Bader was having a hectic morning. The cook at Mother Seton Academy called in sick, so Sister Mary made breakfast for 69 pupils. There was no heat in one of the classrooms, so she checked the furnace. When two visitors showed up for a tour, she ushered them around. All before she cooked lunch.
Sister Mary, principal at the academy, took it in stride. She is used to improvising and handling jobs usually assigned to maintenance workers or janitors. The school, which is in Fells Point, has neither.
What Mother Seton Academy does have is a three-story, 13,000-square-foot brick building built in 1925. The building was once a convent but now serves 72 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders who come from some of Baltimore's poorest neighborhoods.
Pupils are referred to the academy by city schools and nonprofit agencies, and they are expected to work hard. They spend nearly 11 hours there three days a week receiving individual tutoring. They also get help with homework every day. And, they help clean up after classes.
"This school has a rare commitment to children," said Nicole Yeftich, Mother Seton's director of graduate support. "The way they come alive here is unbelievable. I've never seen students go through such a transformation."
After leasing the building from the Conventual Franciscan Friars for nine years, the academy trustees recently started negotiations to purchase the former convent, erasing concerns that the school might have to move.
The academy is a tuition-free, Roman Catholic middle school. Each year, it accepts 12 girls and 12 boys for its two sixth-grade classes. The only money that parents are expected to contribute is $15 per month, which goes toward books.
'Not just academics'
"These are the children that need us the most," said Sister Mary. "The school is not just about academics, but also about the children's social and emotional needs."
Some pupils take two buses to get to the academy, beginning their day at 7:45 a.m. with breakfast at school. Classes begin at 8 a.m. and include language arts, mathematics, religion, Spanish, physical education, science, social studies, literature, health and computer skills. The day also includes tutoring for pupils working below grade level.
Classes end at 3 p.m., but pupils help clean the school before eating a snack and having recess. Then comes a mandatory, hourlong supervised homework period that ends at 4:45. Three nights a week, pupils receive dinner and 1 1/2 hours of tutoring from Loyola College volunteers.
The goal is to get pupils into college preparatory high schools and then into college.
"About 70 percent of our graduates who are seniors in high school have been accepted into college," Sister Mary said with pride.
Sister Ann Claire, who teaches math and religion to eighth-grade girls, said the pupils move forward day by day and inch by inch, adding: "We stay after them all the time. We want to open other worlds to them."
Destiny Cameron, 13, an eighth-grader at Mother Seton, came from Harriet Tubman Elementary School on Harlem Avenue in Baltimore.
"I like the smaller classes," Destiny said. "I also like that people don't judge you here. I am going to a good high school next year, the Institute of Notre Dame. And then I'm going to college."
Tyrell Broughton, 12, a seventh-grader, attended Elmer A. Henderson Elementary on North Wolfe Street, where classes were twice as big. His favorite subjects are math and English, but his eyes light up when he talks about playing the trombone and singing in the choir.
Started in 1993, the academy is named for Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint, who founded the Daughters of Charity, Sister Mary's order.
The academy is supported by six groups: the Daughters of Charity; Marianist Society; School Sisters of Notre Dame; Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Scranton, Pa.; Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia; and the Xaverian Brothers. The school also gets funding from foundations, corporations and private donations and support from the Archdiocese of Baltimore, though Mother Seton Academy is an independent school.
The school operates on a budget of $700,000, most of which is used for salaries for the staff of 21 and for heat and rent.
Fears that the academy might have to move were put to rest when the Conventual Franciscan Friars agreed to negotiate the sale of the convent.
"We are working toward selling the property to the academy," said the Rev. Robert Twele, treasurer for the Conventual Franciscan Friars in the mid-Atlantic and New England areas.
The order owns the valuable 1 1/4 -acre lot at Ann and Fleet streets, home to the former St. Stanislaus Church, the convent and a friary. The church was closed by the Archdiocese of Baltimore nearly three years ago, and the Franciscan Friars had been trying to decide what to do with the property.
"Given the work they are doing, we are going to work with them so they are able to stay there," Twele said.
Sister Mary said the school will begin a capital campaign to raise money to buy the building and pay for renovations, though she's not sure how much the school will have to raise since a purchase price has not been set.
"We want to stay here because this is like a home to the students and our graduates," Sister Mary said. "The school is more than just a building."