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Cover story

St. Frances Academy

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

In the 1820s, Elizabeth Lange, a Haitian woman who had settled in Baltimore, began teaching the children of slaves to read the Bible, something that was against the law in Maryland, a slave state. In 1828, she formalized that effort by establishing St. Frances Academy. Challenging the odds even more the next year, she and three other women founded the Oblate Sisters of Providence, now the oldest African-American order in the church.

The spiritual descendants of Mother Lange continue to defy expectation as they prove in many ways that children of hardship can succeed beautifully if someone will only give them a chance.

That chance is still given at St. Frances Academy, now a co-ed high school in inner-city Baltimore, run by the Oblate Sisters. Its history is celebrated on walls throughout the building, showing decades of former students and sisters, and documents like the 1829 “Prospectus of the School for Colored Girls” and an 1884 article from the New York Sun about “The Colored Nuns of Baltimore.”

The present-day reality of this school is that it is in a ghetto -- considered one of the most dangerous areas in Baltimore -- surrounded by small two-story row houses, many of which are boarded up and scarred by graffiti. The Maryland Penitentiary looms one block away, and the city jail and two new high-security prisons are nearby. Among the 280 students are children from the neighborhood where the drop-out rate is more than 60 percent by 9th grade, rejects from public schools and young people from nontraditional homes. Seventy-five percent are from single-parent homes; of those, 25 percent don’t live with a biological parent. Forty percent receive financial aid for the $3,750 tuition.

But the other part of the current reality of St. Frances Academy, the country’s oldest African-American Catholic high school, is that 95 percent of its graduates go to college -- the majority being the first in their families to even apply -- because they are encountering more than academics in this old, red brick, Federal-style schoolhouse. They are encountering, often for the first time, a sense of family and a sense of standards.

“What we do is try to teach kids to do the right thing,” said the school’s principal, Oblate Sr. John Francis Schilling. “It’s all about the gospel. That’s all we do.”

One of its dominating gospel values is the sense of community. The word family is heard over and over in describing life at St. Frances, by administrators, faculty and students. With that sense of family comes responsibility, which works both ways here -- students measuring up to standards and faculty members going out of their way to see that they do. If students don’t live up to expectations, someone will “get in their face” until they do, Schilling said. “We try to give kids the ability to know who they are and give them something to reach for.”

That personal involvement lifted senior Angel Spruill onto the honor roll after her precalculus teacher, Marvin Addison, met her at 7 a.m. every morning for tutoring. “He lives in this building,” Spruill said, exaggerating a bit in her admiration. “The teachers really put forth the effort if you are willing.”

And students must be willing or they won’t get into St. Frances in the first place. Schilling interviews every perspective student to make sure it’s the student, and not the parents, choosing this school. “It takes up a lot of time, but I can’t let that go. I find out so much about their dynamics.”

Holding students accountable

She also can hold students accountable if they mess up.

“I say, ‘Your parents didn’t make that decision. You did.’ I don’t want a bunch of kids in school who hate it. I want it to be a place where they’re loved and cared for. I don’t want it to be a place like a jail.”

The success stories of this method of administration are many, but few are as moving as that of Kevin Smith, a boy who, after he had stopped selling drugs, was thrown out of his family’s home because he was no longer bringing in money. He was 18, living in a neighborhood playground with only one pair of pants to his name and not a single high school credit.

A former St. Frances basketball coach took him into his home, and Schilling took him into the school. Smith, who was unable to meet the academic standards of St. Frances but eventually received a general equivalency diploma and was accepted at a junior college, said he would have been dead or in jail if it hadn’t been for the academy. He found love in the St. Frances family, a love that carried on after he was killed in a car accident in his freshman year at college. A scholarship was set up in his name, and development director Tom Nealis went to New York this past November to run the marathon in Smith’s honor.

“It’s hard to separate my St. Frances life from the rest of my life,” Nealis said. “That’s the way it’s ingrained in the faculty and staff here. I was really shaken up and I wanted to do something to honor him, to somehow mark his memory.”

That depth of love is at the core of the academy, which sees its mission as broader than being just a Catholic high school. Only 20 percent of its students are Catholic anyway, although all must participate in liturgies and prayer services. The school’s mission is also to be an anchor in the community through a tutoring program in which students assist public school children in the neighborhood and act as mentors for them, to provide services for senior citizens and to maintain a creative partnership with the penitentiary, which includes the school’s sharing its parking lot and the prison’s increasing its patrol area for the school.

‘Faith in themselves and a future’

“There’s nothing here but prisons and images of despair,” Schilling said. “You have to embrace whatever is there.”

Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend has worked to solidify the prison partnership. “Rather than look askance at each other, they see they’re really connected,” Townsend said, adding that many of the students have family members in jail, so they haven’t viewed it as a friendly neighbor. “It gives a human face to everybody. Corrections officers are human, just as prisoners have families.”

Townsend got involved after she visited the school and saw the transformation taking place in students’ lives. “It takes kids from tough homes who would have little home and gives them faith in themselves and a future.”

Furthering the academy’s partnership with the neighborhood is Patrick Lee, a graduate who is now the school’s community organizer. Lee grew up in a now boarded-up house nearby. After he graduated in 1998 from Salisbury State University in Salisbury, Md., with a degree in social work, he returned to the tough streets of his youth wearing his cap and gown to greet neighbors. Now he works full-time building bridges between the two worlds he knows, St. Frances and the streets of East Baltimore, with his salary being paid through a grant obtained by the school.

Lee’s work is only the latest example of the school’s presence in the community. The eight Oblate Sisters, all of whom are African-American except Schilling, moved their convent from inside the school in 1974 to a 14-room convent created by combining six row houses on the street next to the school. Living with the people, and not removed from them, is important, said Oblate Sr. Brenda Motte, who organizes tutoring, plans activities for the grandmothers and arranges for the prison guards to escort neighborhood children on outings.

“Our presence has meant a lot to people,” she said. “It’s like God is here.”

Embracing the community is what St. Frances wants to do in an even bigger way as part of its current $10 million capital campaign. Not only are the school’s needs being addressed through the addition of a gym, improved library, tuition support and better faculty salaries, but the neighborhood will share as well because the proposed gym will double as a community center.

The reason St. Frances Academy is so successful in its missions of education and outreach is because of the sisters, said Christian Br. Edward Gallagher, a principal for three years who now teaches math part-time and helps out in the office. “It’s the tradition they have, the respect with which they’re held in the African-American community.”

Gallagher also has been active in the community, taking neighborhood children on field trips and helping to clean up the area. “They used to call me the rat man. I was an expert at killing rats.”

Besides education and outreach, St. Frances has one other area of little-engine-that-could success -- its basketball team, formed nine years ago. With no school gym, players have to practice at donated space, upon availability, at a recreation center eight blocks away. Not only is this a major inconvenience, but it also means they never have a home-court advantage. Every game is an away game for the Panthers, who have still managed to win five Catholic league championships, a few national rankings, develop a couple of All-American players, become Baltimore’s top-ranked team in 1996 and send students to Division I colleges.

“It’s symbolic of how these students overcome obstacles,” Nealis said.

Since many of these students, athletes and non-athletes, have numerous obstacles to overcome, the school offers weekly therapy; more than 100 are now taking part. Nine counselors help students deal with a range of issues, mostly involving questions of identity and family problems. Benedictine Sr. Elaine Bain, who runs the counseling program, said students often want to know how they can be different from family members, who may be selling drugs or in jail, and how they can make something of themselves.

The curriculum supports the counseling efforts with gender-specific courses like Sisters, which deals with relationships, hygiene and self-esteem, and a similar offering, Boys to Men. And as far as identity goes, just so students can look at discrimination from another perspective, the curriculum features required Jewish studies classes.

‘Stay focused’

All of this learning, outreach and basketball are grounded firmly in faith, a faith that is professed daily in homeroom prayers, prayers at the start of classes, holy day Masses and special prayer services. Just before school dismissed for Thanksgiving break, the entire student body and faculty gathered in the chapel to give thanks as the family they have become.

“Stay focused and stay on track,” assistant principal Freddie Lee advised at the start of the service. “We are all truly blessed. Let us never lose sight of that.”

Then the gospel choir took its place and began swaying before the altar. “Lord, we give you thanks,” they started out softly, before building. “We lift our voices” -- and they did -- “to thank you for your goodness and your mercy toward us.”

Students presented offerings, among them a kente cloth, “to remind us of our heritage,” and incense, “to remind us this is a holy place.”

A reading from Colossians followed. Then students shared stories for which they gave thanks and told the audience, “Let us stand and thank God for what God has done for us,” for which God received a standing ovation.

Academic awards for the first quarter were announced. Schilling gave the closing remarks, telling students they all had been given gifts, although they might not yet know what they are. “Our goal is to get to our final reward. Be thankful God gave you these gifts, whatever they are, and use them to help others. That’s what Thanksgiving is about.”

She encouraged them to think about who they are and quoted Socrates that “an unexamined life is not worth living.”

As for the daunting task of raising $5 million in a four- month campaign to break ground for the new gym/community center in March, she told the students they are the reason potential donors will want to help. “You’re the story. They’ll see you and realize this is a good thing. Nothing is impossible.”

Closing prayers included a request for Mother Lange to pray for them. Then the gospel choir took its place again and belted out “You Ought to Been There,” which brought nearly every girl and even some of the boys to their feet, clapping, swaying and singing along.

And so Mother Lange’s legacy flourishes. Not far from all this praise and thanks, the bedroom where she died is quietly preserved -- a single white iron bed, with a chamber pot underneath, Victorian washstand nearby and a crucifix on the wall. At the other side of her room, a window looks into a computer lab.

As Schilling said, it’s all about the gospel. A school founded on one woman’s courage to teach the Bible has given way to a modern day institution abounding in achievement and, there to celebrate it all, a chapel full of students singing the gospel praise.

Retta Blaney, an arts and religion writer, is editor of the anthology Journalism Stories from the Real World (North American Press).

National Catholic Reporter, January 14, 2000