The hard sweat of building a better Baltimore takes place every weekday in hundreds of classrooms across the city, where teachers make the difference in the lives of children who grow up in the long shadow of poverty. We always come back to this. Every serious conversation — about crime and drug addiction, about public health and the quality of life, about jobs and the middle class, about Baltimore's amazing potential — comes back to the education of the children who start out with so many disadvantages.
It's always about helping them grow, dream and see a world beyond the sad rowhouses. It's about raising them above their raisin', so they end up in a better place in life.
It takes extra work, beyond what the public schools and teachers can give. The after-school programs are important. All kinds of studies show that extra help with homework, along with enrichment programs and something good to eat, will make a huge difference in the achievement of poor kids. Same with summer school. More is more. More pays off.
So here's the Power Project at St. Francis Neighborhood Center in Reservoir Hill — a three-story brick house that was at one time part of the Jos. A. Bank estate. The house sits at Linden Avenue and Whitelock Street, an area once so notorious for heroin and crack that the city gave up trying to chase the dealers and junkies away and tore down more than 20 vacant rowhouses and stores long used as shooting galleries and stash houses.
Twenty years after the wrecking crews came through, there's a pleasant, trash-free quarter-acre of grass and trees at the corner, with no sign of the blight that once seemed permanent.
Forty-three children — 5 to 14 years of age and divided into three groups — have just started another year of after-school studies at the Power Project. Several of them come from the John Eager Howard Elementary School a couple of blocks down Linden; the rest come from 10 other schools.
Once they arrive, many of them by bus, they get a snack. (First things first, right?) They get help with homework, a lot of one-on-one tutoring from staff and volunteers. The children report what they learned during the day, a way of reviewing their lessons and keeping their tutors informed. Then there are enrichment programs — a dance or photography class, or a lecture on nutrition, art lessons with students of the Maryland Institute College of Art. When I visited on Tuesday, the Baltimore Museum of Art's mobile program had set up a display on the lawn. The children get time in a computer lab, too.
They also get a hot meal before going home at 6 p.m.
All of the children are from the 21217 ZIP code, says Christi Green, the center's executive director. Half of the children live in households officially considered poor by the federal government. Most of the parents earn less than $29,000 a year. The Power Project is free.
Enrollment grew this year and, says Green, there's a waiting list of children who want to get into the program.
The Power Project partners with the kids' schools so that the tutors know how the boys and girls are doing from quarter to quarter. In other words, Green and her staff see the report cards.
Five years in, the Power Project is getting some nice results. Based on the children's grades, St. Francis reports the following from the 2013-2014 academic year:
Nine of out 10 Power Project kids passed their reading classes, and 32 percent improved their reading grades during the school year. More than half of the kids improved their scores on reading assessments by 10 percent or better.
Nine out of 10 kids passed their math classes, and 60 percent improved their grades in math during the school year. Nearly half of the kids improved their scores on math assessments by 10 percent or better.
That's encouraging, especially if you're one of the people who work at the St. Francis Neighborhood Center, or if you're a parent of one of the children, or if you're a citizen of Baltimore in need of optimism about the future.
I could not stand at Linden and Whitelock without sensing the spirit of Tom Composto.
He was the Jesuit priest who moved into the original center in the 1960s and stayed the rest of his life, devoting himself to the poor. He was known as the Pope of Whitelock Street. He used to stand on the porch and challenge the drug dealers to get off the corner and do something better with their lives.
Father Tom was tough, determined and humane. He died three years ago. He would have been so happy at the scene on the corner of Whitelock and Linden now — kids showing up for help with their homework, and a handful of adults making a difference in their lives.
A fundraiser for the St. Francis Neighborhood Center is scheduled for Saturday. Information at http://www.stfranciscenter.org
Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.