Renaissance Academy an oasis for students

Baltimore high school tells kids: 'You can make it'

Congratulations to journalists Erica L. Green, Diana Sugg, Christopher T. Assaf and The Sun for their epic story, photos and video about the Renaissance Academy and its graduates ("Mantra for graduates of troubled Baltimore high school: 'You can make it,'" June 5).

As one reader wrote, "the students' stories and comments just grabbed my heart, as did those of the mentors. Would there were thousands more like M. Witherspoon, Cooper, Powell, and Taylor for the thousands of young men and women still struggling."

The work of Principal Nikkia Rowe and her faculty and administrative team at Renaissance Academy was clearly exceptional and a major reason for the successes recounted. Would that there were more Principal Rowes.

Another factor at this majority male school, which has a 2-1 ratio of boys to girls, is more readily replicable than a great principal. To meet the needs of the young men at RA, the University of Maryland School of Social Work obtained a three-year, $720,000 grant through the Maryland State Department of Education to create the Seeds of Promise program with Ms. Rowe.

This program expands her mentor/student cohort model to after-school hours and summers and provides data monitoring and evaluation to assess its effectiveness. Of 68 boys who were enrolled for the past two academic years, 63 percent showed an increase in GPA from the first semester last year (with no mentor) to the first semester this year (with mentor). The average increase was 48 percent.

The school's 82 percent graduation rate for the four-year cohort includes both boys and girls, who are assisted by staff but less formally so than the dropout-prone boys.

The program's components include a community school coordinator who is a licensed, master's degree social worker qualified to provide mental health services; after-school programming for credit recovery and enrichment; a summer bridge program for incoming freshman; SAT prep; restorative practices training provided by the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law for all faculty; daily discussion circles for students; and service learning opportunities to ensure students meet community service requirements for graduation.

The school also drew on strength mobilized because of its location in Promise Heights, a place-based cradle-to-college-to career initiative providing wrap-around services in Upton/Druid Heights. Promise Heights is the only U.S. Department of Education Promise Neighborhood grantee in Baltimore and works with children and families in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city.

Upton/Druid Heights is home to approximately 10,342 residents, 28 percent of whom are children, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. There is little racial and economic diversity in the neighborhood as 93 percent of the population is African American and 53 percent of households have an income less than $14,999. Nearly 58 percent of children live in poverty, as compared to 28 percent in Baltimore City, and 10 percent in Maryland overall.

What is particularly striking as RA's Class of 2016 moves into the world is the weak educational attainment that is the case in many poverty stricken communities. In Upton/Druid Heights, nearly half (49 percent) of residents who are 25 years or older have obtained less than a high school diploma or equivalency.

Promise Heights has been helping to build strong connections between the Renaissance Academy, the faith community, the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services and the other community schools in Upton/Druid Heights.

With continued support, these components can become a permanent part of the academy's culture and help foster the success of current and entering students.

West Baltimore needs a small, high-performing high school that reaches out to youth who are at significant risk of running outside the path to graduation. Let's keep this going.

Richard P. Barth and Bronwyn Mayden, Baltimore

The writers are, respectively, dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work and UMSSW associate dean and executive director of Promise Heights Baltimore.

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