Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The Sisters Are Doing Something Right In Baltimore

The New York Times is reporting that the Oblate Sisters of Providence, a Catholic order of African American Nuns, has been turning around (bugmenot id: bugmenot87, password: bugmenot) troubled youth in Baltimore, Maryland for 177 years. Their school, St. Frances Academy, is located in the inner city, near a jail:

The nuns - and, nowadays, priests and lay teachers - pride themselves on helping children from some of Baltimore's toughest neighborhoods replace despair with hope, failure with success, doubt with faith.

The school is just north of block after block of prison and jail cells holding as many as 7,000 inmates at a time. Most of the students know people in prison and many of them have mourned family members or friends who were murdered or died of AIDS.

Some have moved away from drug-addicted parents to live with grandparents or other relatives. Others arrived at St. Frances Academy after either failing or being thrown out of public schools or after getting into trouble with the law.

St. Frances defies the odds.

When students enter the academy, often from overcrowded and unruly public schools, on average they read at a sixth-grade level. But within three years, most progress to a 12th-grade reading level.

They study college-level texts for some courses in the rigorous curriculum, and required courses include algebra, geometry, a foreign language, African-American studies and either chemistry or forensics (where students learn science through, for example, ballistics testing.) Almost every student graduates, and 90 percent go on to college - for three out of four students, the first in their families to do so.

"We have to believe that God is at work within them," said Sister John Francis Schilling, the principal. "So many of them come here down on themselves. I think that the hope that we give them is, first of all, hope in themselves. I see this as my ministry."

The Oblate Sisters have taken on challenges from the very beginning, when Mother Mary Lange founded the school in 1828 to teach children of slaves to read the Bible, a practice that was then illegal in Maryland.

Today, the school, named after St. Frances of Rome, a 15th-century mystic, sits in one of the poorest neighborhoods of a city where half of those who start public high schools never finish, where the homicide rate last year was five times greater than that of New York City, and where officials estimate that as many as one in 10 people are drug addicts.

Even though annual tuition costs $4,700, some 60% of students pay only partial tuition or none at all. The school relies heavily upon contributions to cover the shortfall. Donors include Camille Cosby, the wife of Bill Cosby and a former student of an Oblate-run school in Washington. She gave $2 million, while an anonymous donor recently gave an additional $1 million.
Entries for this week's Carnival of Education (guest hosted this week by Science and Politics) are due no later than 5:00 PM (Eastern) today. Submit entries to Coturnix1[at]aol[dot]com. See last week's Carnival here.

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