School aims to set, keep city kids on college path

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When members of the freshman class at New Era Academy walk through the school's doors today, they won't just be starting high school. The next years of their lives will be like four years of college orientation.

"It's not like we're going to talk about college once a month and then move on to other things," said the new school's equally new principal, John Davis. "We want this to be a part of their lives. We want them to see college in everything that they do."

Many high schools focus their students on college preparation. The New Era Academy takes it one step further -- college expectation.

"From the very beginning there's this clear and collective message that you are going to college," said English teacher Dawn Gunderson, who left Lake Clifton-Eastern High School to teach at the untested New Era Academy because she believed in its mission.

Success

At Lake Clifton-Eastern, when students would complain about why they had to learn a particular lesson, "It would be hard to say, 'because you have to do this in college,'" Gunderson said, because so many students had no plans to go after graduation.

At New Era, "We don't just expect them to go to college," Davis said. "We expect them to be successful in college."

The academy is one of two new innovative high schools opening this week in Baltimore. The other new school, Baltimore Freedom Academy, has a theme of law, leadership and social advocacy.

Both schools -- funded by local and national foundations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- were cre- ated to give city families options for high school and to provide a rigorous academic environment for students who want to go to college but might not have met the standards for the selective citywide high schools.

The New Era Academy will be run by Replications Inc., an educational nonprofit group that oversees eight schools in New York City.

Structured environment

At the new school, students -- called "scholars" by teachers and the principal -- will be educated in an environment that is highly structured and disciplined.

The 80 to 100 freshmen will wear white, black and maroon uniforms. They will recite a Scholar's Creed every morning. Copies of a list of strict rules, called "non-negotiables," are plastered all over the building.

"We want the students to walk on the right side of the hallway. We want the students to open the door for each other," Davis said. "We're going to demand it. And when it's not happening, we're going to speak to someone about it."

The school's rigidity was a major factor for Donna Stanley of Northeast Baltimore and her husband when they decided to send 14-year-old Christopher Felton to New Era, instead of his neighborhood high school, Northern.

"I liked the discipline and that my son could get help if he needed it, especially help on those [state] tests," Stanley said. "But what really got me was the fact that they wanted to get the kids into college."

During a four-week summer session at the school, which is housed on one floor of the old Arnett J. Brown Middle School in Cherry Hill, Davis and teachers learned that discipline might not be the biggest hurdle.

Coming from struggling middle schools, most of the freshmen -- selected to attend by random lottery -- are working one or two grade levels below their expected level, Davis said.

But the students make up for that in enthusiasm, Davis said. During the summer session, some traveled an hour and a half or more by city bus to arrive at the school every day, early, uniforms neat.

"I think they're definitely up for the challenge," said Brian Biles, who left Baltimore County schools to teach basic math skills at New Era. "The kids seem to be pumped about it. The parents are excited. So I think we're going to have a real great year."

Scholars at the academy -- which will eventually grow to 300 to 400 students in four grades -- will study basic courses such as math, English and history. They will take Latin, plus an extra math and English class each day.

But it won't all be by the book.

Instead of a shrieking bell, students will change classes to the sound of classical music and jazz tunes.

And once a week, the students will participate in a more informal class called Touchstones, designed to teach discussion, critical reading and thinking skills. They'll read a work of Plato or an excerpt of a speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and then chat in small groups about themes and moral issues.

Eager

The challenge is thrilling to Christopher, who couldn't wait for school to open today.

"I like it because I enjoy having teachers pushing you to that limit," he said.

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