Thursday, April 12, 2007

What works: Baltimore school performs miracles

Posted on Sun, Apr. 01, 2007

BALTIMORE - Consider the neighborhood.

Words tumble to mind by way of description. Words like desolate. Words like tough. Words like hard and mean and grim and sad.

Now consider the girl who goes to school here. Danielle Branche, 16, is tiny, has a pretty smile, and speaks with self-possession about her dreams. "When I graduate, I want to go to either Antioch College in Ohio or Point Park University in Pittsburgh and I want to get my bachelor's in both dance and business management so I'll be able to open my own dance company."

Consider the neighborhood. Consider the child. If they seem not to fit one another, well, that's the point. Welcome to St. Frances Academy. Welcome to What Works.

The latter is my series of columns highlighting that which is helping to improve the lives of black children. The former is a sterling example thereof.

St. Frances ( was founded in 1828 by Mother Mary Lange, a Haitian-born nun who eventually moved to Baltimore, where she used her own money to educate free children of color, which was then illegal.

Nearly 180 years later, the order (Oblate Sisters of Providence) and school she founded serve more that 300 students. More than 70 percent of them qualify for free or subsidized lunches. More than 90 percent of them go to college.

What makes this miracle? David Owens, a teacher of theology and, like a number of his colleagues, an alumnus, ticks off a few factors: small class sizes, uniforms, discipline, rigorous academics, high expectations. "And then lastly, love. When I scold you - yell at you, they say - it's not because I don't like you. It's because I love you."

In some form or another, every student or teacher says that.

"What makes us different," says Sister John Francis, the school's president, "is we're independent. We can do whatever we want, pretty much."

In public schools, she says, "the principals' hands are tied, the teachers' hands are tied" and no one has the freedom to simply do what works. But at St. Frances, they do. For example, the school provides counseling to mend the emotional wounds of kids who have seen mom on drugs, dad in jail, brother murdered. A third of her students, says Sister John, are in weekly therapy.

"My belief is that you can take the smartest kid in the world, but if they've got all these issues, they're not going to be able to focus on their academics until they at least start dealing with the issues."

Across the street from the school is a prison. High stone walls topped by concertina wire. Squatting there massive, ugly and cold. Squatting there like a warning. Squatting there like a threat.

Deonte Tuggle, 17, goes to school in the literal shadow of that threat. Yet he is a young man of offhand confidence.

"I'm not like most boys my age that live in the neighborhood," he says. "I'm not out there smoking, drinking and getting high and all that kind of stuff. I don't let people dictate my life and tell me who I am as a person. Only I know who I am as a person."

Consider the child. Consider the neighborhood.

Now, consider the possibilities.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at His column publishes most Wednesdays and Sundays.


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