Parents, teachers and members of a local church spoke to students at Excel Academy Tuesday morning in an effort to reassure the student body that they have their support. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)
Sharonda Rhodes stood before the classmates of her dead son Markel and told them they are on the right path — there at Excel Academy in West Baltimore, at their desks learning chemistry — and will have a bright future if they maintain that focus and stay off the streets.
"You can do it," said Rhodes, her T-shirt covered in pictures of Markel, a 19-year-old senior at the school who was fatally shot in March. "Don't let nobody tell you you can't."
Across the room, Makayia Crosson, also a senior set to graduate next month, began to cry. Rhodes rushed over to her, and the two gave each other a long hug.
Five Excel students have been fatally shot since October.
"I was just thinking it is really sad. Back to back to back," Crosson, 18, said of all the killings in the city. "I'm tired of going to funerals."
The exchange was one of many between students and community members Tuesday morning after Rhodes worked with Principal Tammatha Woodhouse to bring voices of support to the school. Excel has been hit particularly hard by the surging violence in the city, where 122 people have been killed this year.
Markel Scott, known as "Kel," was the fourth student killed. Then on April 29, 18-year-old Steven Jackson was killed in a triple shooting not far from the school, located at 1001 W. Saratoga St. in Poppleton.
Jackson's family could not be reached for comment. Police said he and the other two victims, one of whom also died, may have been targeted, but they could not provide additional details.
Woodhouse said Jackson was a respectful young man who was in school every day and was close to graduating.
"I feel like I'm in an epidemic," said Woodhouse.
Rhodes and the other volunteers who gathered Tuesday — preachers and coaches, an aspiring hip-hop artist, a police spokesman — said they feel it, too. They wanted to hear the students' concerns, let them know they matter, and tell them the violence that has become so prevalent in their lives is not all that's out there for them.
"We're looking for relationships to come out of this," said Marvin McKenstry, a minister at the Victory House of Worship Church, a few blocks from the school. He offered the students help with their resumes and connections to job placement services.
"This ain't a one-time thing," said Marvin McDowell, founder of UMAR Boxing in nearby Druid Heights. Two of his boxers were killed in recent months. He offered the Excel students gym time and a safe space to exercise and meet other young people.
The students seemed receptive, but also a bit wary. Rhodes' presence seemed to ease the tension.
"I know she really care, because she's been through it," Crosson said. "Some people bluffing."
Woodhouse took over the alternative school in 2012. She helped turn it into a place not just for students with behavioral problems, but for all kinds of kids and young adults whose life circumstances — such as teen pregnancy or shifting foster placements — had prevented them from succeeding in traditional school settings.
Woodhouse said she and her staff know the population comes with challenges, but they have never seen anything like the violence of this school year.
She credits Baltimore City schools CEO Sonja Santelises with protecting the school's budget despite a massive shortfall this year. Woodhouse recently was recognized for being a stellar principal by the local Heart of the School Awards organization. She said the grant will help pay for therapeutic crisis intervention training for her staff.
Still, she is in constant need of more resources, she said.
She wants to keep her school open until 8 p.m. each weeknight and on the weekends to give her students a safe place to go. She wants to provide more career advice and job training. She wants to create a special fund for the parents of students who are killed, so they can afford proper funerals.
The promised support from the volunteers Tuesday was more than welcome, she said.
"We need it," Woodhouse told the group before they started visiting classrooms. "Thank you."
In an English class, McKenstry asked how many of the students knew the five classmates of theirs who had been killed. A few hands popped up. When he asked how many had known someone else killed in the city, more hands shot up. Five, then six.
"This stuff's at the point where it's stealing our promise," McKenstry said.
Corie Little, 27, an aspiring hip-hop artist from South Baltimore, promised advice for students with musical aspirations of their own. He commiserated with them, saying he, too, had experienced lots of death growing up in Baltimore.
"You look at it like that's just what it is," he said. "There are other ways."
When the men asked if any of the students had anything to say, K'wan Lewis, 21, quietly raised his hand.
"I'm here today because I watched my homeboy die," Lewis said. "I ain't trying to end up the same way."
Lewis, who is set to graduate next month, said the killing occurred last summer. He said he saw his friend get shot, then choke on his own blood. Lewis was about to become a father at the time, he said, and decided then that he had to "do something different."
"That's amazing," Rhodes told him after he shared his story. "I admire you for that. That's strength."
After the visitors had moved on, Christina Blount, 19, said she, too, had recently witnessed someone die from a shooting. She's set to graduate, and wants to get out of Baltimore — maybe go to art school.
She appreciated the message from the visitors, she said, but she's not sure the violence is escapable within the city.
Breaking News Alerts Newsletter
As it happens
Get updates on the coronavirus pandemic and other news as it happens with our free breaking news email alerts.