Even for violent, long-suffering Baltimore, this week has been an excessively brutal and depressing one. Someone murdered 69-year-old Evelyn Player inside the Baptist church where she worshipped and worked. Someone caused the death of a 5-year-old girl named Nivea Anderson in Belair-Edison, and police declared the little girl a homicide victim. That made her the 300th such victim of the year in Baltimore, and that made 2021 the seventh consecutive year with 300 or more murders.
“Failing to recognize the value of human life cannot continue to be the norm in Baltimore,” says our earnest mayor. And who disagrees with that? The question is: How to break what our equally earnest police commissioner calls a “culture of violence.”
It’s not just Baltimore, and it’s not just now. Almost every aspect of life in the U.S. is touched in some way by violence, and we’ve been this way for a long time. Americans have developed a high tolerance for the stuff. How else to explain that it continues to such a degree?
Fortunately and remarkably, the majority of us still would like to see a better country, and, around here, a better Baltimore.
There are several ways to reduce violence. Targeting those at risk is a primary one. That means reforming the nation’s prison system, with far more emphasis on life-changing rehabilitation during the incarceration of violent offenders. And it means a better effort to help boys and girls in trouble, those who have had a rough start in life and ended up in the juvenile justice system.
It’s not that we don’t do these things already. It’s that they are far more important than we acknowledge, fund and support.
That brings us to the positive bend in today’s stream of consciousness leading to the Baltimore waterfront: The Fresh Start job training program of the Living Classrooms Foundation.
In recent columns, I’ve tried to demonstrate to my fellow Marylanders that Living Classrooms is far more than what most of us think. It’s not just “field trips on old boats on the Chesapeake.” Its mission has grown in scope over the last three decades, with programs aimed at reducing poverty, hunger and violence and increasing education, employment and recreation in a large swath of East and Southeast Baltimore.
Fresh Start, established in 1990, is for kids, specifically teens who have been in trouble and dropped out of school. They come each day to a long barn-style building, off Caroline Street in Harbor East, on a referral from the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services. The mission: Get the kids back on track — or on track for the first time in their lives — to complete their high school education, pick up decent work habits and learn some carpentry skills.
Jim Reeb has been running the vocational training part for nearly 22 years. He’s taught hundreds of young people the way of bandsaws, drills and sanders. His students make and sell furniture — Adirondack chairs — known as “Fells Point chairs” at Fresh Start — footstools and small chests. (I bought a camp chair from the program for $50.)
“We have a little student-run business there, but the end product of the program is the kids,” Reeb says. “We use the wood shop as a way to teach them how to work.”
That means showing up on time, for starters. “Most of our guys have been out of school for a long time and a 9 o’clock [arrival] is a struggle until they really get into it,” Reeb says.
While several boys that Reeb instructed over the years were lost to street violence, and others just dropped out of the program, the majority have seen it through. These days, some even show up early for class. Reeb thinks up to 80% of his students have committed to succeeding.
Each day, they study on the upper level of the Fresh Start building for the equivalent of a high school diploma. Spontaneous celebrations break out in the wood shop when news arrives that one of the students succeeded in passing all four of the state’s General Educational Development (GED) exams.
Jens Pharr is the academic coordinator, a former public schoolteacher who finds the small class sizes at Fresh Start far more conducive to academic success. The kids, he says, need and want personalized instruction they could not get from their previous schools. That’s what keeps them coming. Daily attendance at Fresh Start is better than what Pharr found in his former job in a Baltimore high school.
“The GED is a difficult test,” he says. “The math questions are at a pretty high level, and a lot of students don’t have the foundations to even approach the type of questions they’re seeing on test material. I have to figure out, essentially, how to take an entire middle and high school curriculum for multiple grade levels, for four different subject areas [math, social studies, science and language arts] and package them into, ideally, six months of instruction to get a student their diploma.”
Last week, Shaunta’ Cheaton, Fresh Start’s assistant director, handed a certificate and flowers to a girl who passed all four GED exams in only one month. Her classmates cheered.
This week, this terrible week in Baltimore, a young man who has been in Fresh Start for two years — “A real grinder, I love him,” says Reeb — finally succeeded in earning his GED. His classmates cheered. So should we all.