e-mail us

Cover story

Pooled efforts start new school

Special Report Writer

Planning experts certainly would have told them to forget it long before the project ever got started.

After all, this is not the time to start talking about low-cost Catholic education. Or staffing schools with more nuns and priests. Or starting up in the inner city, particularly a city with one of the worst high school dropout rates in the country.

And even if all such reality checks were ignored, those involved at least would be looking for the kids who had the best chance of succeeding, not those doubly damned with poverty and low academic skills.

Four years ago, however, six religious congregations turned all the "givens" upside down here in Baltimore. Intent on living out a mission of service to the poor, they pooled personnel and finances to found and run Mother Seton Academy, a school for some of the city's most impoverished and educationally deprived middle-schoolers.

The religious collaborators are the Daughters of Charity, Franciscan Sisters of Philadelphia, Sisters Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Scranton, School Sisters of Notre Dame, the Marianists and the Xaverian Brothers.

The school is named after America's first canonized saint, Elizabeth Seton, who founded the Daughters of Charity of St. Joseph, established orphanages and hospitals for the poor and devoted herself to the parochial schools of Maryland.

Since opening in 1993, Mother Seton Academy has had an enrollment of 60 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. Many pupils enter with second-grade level reading and writing skills. When they graduate three years later, all are at eighth-grade levels and gain admission to the city's best parochial and public schools.

Such unlikely results are achieved with unlikely dedication and generosity, including nearly a quarter of a million dollars in donated time from the faculty. The school is now in its second location, the former convent of St. Stanislaus Church in the Fells Point area of the city. A local architectural firm contributed the plans for the conversion of the convent into classrooms, and a $75,000 grant from another local firm provided funds for the initial renovation.

Catholic school was once "unthinkable" for the city's educationally and financially disadvantaged youth, said Shannon Clancy, the school's development director. However, parents pay no tuition at Mother Seton. They are asked to give $10 a month ($100 annually) toward books, supplies and field trips. The donation "reinforces some responsibility and helps people to feel connected to the school," Clancy said.

When poverty is calculated in the United States, the results look much like the children at Mother Seton. Poverty means youngsters without sufficient schooling, health care, nutrition, parenting or individual attention.

And Baltimore has more than its share of impoverished kids. Earlier this year, a study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national group based here and dedicated to enhancing the lives of disadvantaged children, found that 32 percent of the city's children live in poverty or in households receiving public assistance and 33 percent live in what the "City Kids Count" Survey defined as "distressed areas."

Of 50 cities surveyed, only Dallas and St. Louis had worse high-school dropout rates than Baltimore, where 21 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds dropped out of high school in 1990. The city ranked third highest in percentage of births to teenagers under age 18 -- 11 percent of Baltimore's births.

Daughter of Charity Sr. Mary Bader and her staff are well aware of the study and know that all the school's students come from households receiving some form of federal assistance. "Things are getting much tougher for children," Bader said, noting that academy officials have learned that federal medical assistance will no longer accept certain centers used by the school for educational and psychological testing so important "for the choosing and serving of these children," she said.

Welfare reform has also cut into the federal aid some of the pupils' families once received.

Besides the dedication of staff and volunteers, a little luck and answered prayers keep the academy afloat, Bader said. Last month someone donated a 1993 van with new tires. Other donations and fundraising activities have netted $60,000 of the school's $493,000 1997-98 budget. A further $140,000 comes from corporate and other grants, including $25,000 from the archdiocese's Partners in Excellence Program.

But the bulk of the school's finances is contributed by the eight sisters and two brothers whose donated services are valued at $224,000 and whose religious congregations have given $80,000 to the school.

Four out of five academy students are non-Catholic, although all take religion classes that use Catholic texts. Teachers make it a point to be inclusive of the students' different religious traditions, said Bader.

Bader, the school's principal, said teachers try to involve students in various prayer experiences. Classroom prayer occurs and so does the celebration of the Jewish Seder meal and the African-American festival of Kwanza.

As important as religion classes are -- especially for inculcating values and respect for others -- so, too, are classes in math, language arts, science, social studies, literature, computer skills and health, she said. Seventh- and eighth-graders also learn Spanish.

When school began Sept. 2, six of 24 sixth-graders were Hispanic students, many of them coming from Spanish-speaking homes, Bader said. The six represent the highest percentage of Latino students in a grade level, she said, and indicate the growth of the city's Hispanic population.

This year's 24 new students were chosen from 63 who attended a two-week summer school session in July, which devoted 10 mornings to academics and 10 afternoons to recreation. Because of the school's intentionally small size, "many are turned away who should be here," lamented Bader.

All who attended the summer sessions qualified financially to attend the academy, so teachers were looking for those who were having trouble in their current school and who showed a need for individual attention, said Clancy. Teachers also are looking for those they hope will do well in a college preparatory high school, said Clancy.

"There's a lot of prayer, discernment and discussion that go into these choices," she said. "In the end, we hope we've chosen the kids who'll benefit from this environment."

While all students must demonstrate financial need in order to attend, not all come from single-parent families, broken homes or achieve below grade level. "It's helpful to have a mixture of kids who are academically ahead and come from stable families," Clancy said.

By paying close attention to each student, limiting class size and insisting on homework, the school's faculty has been able to move students out of some of the lowest-performing categories into grade-equivalent or higher levels.

"Our students were not used to doing much homework," said Franciscan Sr. Ruth Bernadette O'Connor, who teaches seventh-grade boys. "We try to break old habits and make new ones. We help kids to organize themselves, to plan things and to plan for their lives," she said.

Basic values that some might "take for granted," such as honesty and refraining from sexual relations outside of marriage, are unknown to many pupils at academy, she said. " 'Is that so?' they often ask me."

Although the school day runs from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., students arrive and eat breakfast at school at 7:45 and stay until at least 5 p.m. "It's a long day, but it gives kids the structures they crave," O'Connor said. "It gives us time to deal with each individual, and the small number allows them to know one another."

Attachments can run deep. "It feels like a family here," said Ayrea O'Neal, who graduated in May and wants to become a pediatrician. Her classmate, Jahaira Zuniga, wants to be an astronaut.

Wendy Lewis, a member of the 1996 graduating class, has returned as a tutor. She intends to enter the police academy after graduating from high school.

Mother Seton Academy makes such dreams possible. Students here speak of newfound confidence in their abilities to learn. They tell of not having to show off to get attention. They talk of the love they receive from staff and teachers.

And they display their affection for a school favorite, Javert, the guinea pig who got his name from the musical "Les Miserables." The play was on the itinerary of several students who were able to take a trip to New York thanks to a donor.

The school has achieved some national prominence with the work of Quiebonnie McDonald, an eighth-grader who wrote about "Love" and had her poem published in the Anthology of Poetry by Young Americans.

The closeness of students to school and each other was evident in early June when the eighth-graders returned voluntarily after graduation to do odd jobs and help the staff.

Students learn to clean after school each day. They stay to participate in sports and to do an hour's supervised homework. Several remain for supper and for extra tutoring three nights each week with one of the 25 volunteers -- many of them students from Loyola College here.

Members of the Values and Services Center of Loyola, a Jesuit college, have formed a partnership with the academy. While Loyola sends trainee teachers to the academy, "our students educate Loyola students about poverty issues," Bader said.

Marist Br. Charles Johnson, who teaches eighth-grade boys and is the school's only full-time male teacher, said of the different men's and women's orders working at Mother Seton, "It takes lots of cooperation, but we're all committed to what the school is about."

Donors have made possible journeys to historic Gettysburg, Washington and Philadelphia. A guest speaker program has brought Maryland Sens. Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes and Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke to school as well as actor Clark Johnson of the TV series "Homicide," which is filmed near the school's South Anne Street location. Cardiologist John DuBois Dubin has taken students to the hospital where he works and has brought a brain to school to explain the effects of drugs.

All of it -- tutoring, tours, guest speakers -- are part of the academy's broad approach to Catholic education, Clancy said.

"The smallest thing you do might have enormous influence," added O'Connor. "You just pray."

National Catholic Reporter, September 5, 1997