Baraka School: An African Experiment

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Brandon Harlee in his Baltimore neighborhood

The boys of inner-city Baltimore don't get to be boys for long. Brandon Harlee was two years old, in his mother's arms, when his father shot her, leaving her legs paralyzed. His dad left the family, and Brandon grew up in a neighborhood rife with drugs and gangs, where even little kids learn to act tough. By sixth grade, Brandon was becoming too much for his mom — and his school — to handle. Though he showed promise on aptitude tests, he scored Ds and Fs in his classes and was constantly in trouble for fighting with other students.

Brandon was well on his way to joining the two-thirds of black males in Baltimore who don't graduate from high school — and perhaps the nearly 50% who end up in jail or on probation — when almost miraculously he was lifted out of that hellish environment and settled into a boarding school in rural Kenya. There, he and other Baltimore boys who had been forced to grow up too hard and fast got a second chance to experience childhood — to climb trees, collect insects, do their homework together, read mystery novels. After attending seventh and eighth grades in Kenya, Brandon was named Most Improved Student; last month he returned to a highly regarded magnet school in Baltimore, where he just aced his first Latin test.

An author of Brandon's transformation was Robert Embry, head of the Abell Foundation, which invests $5 million a year in education in Baltimore. Six years ago, Embry canvassed principals of local middle schools to see what they needed most. More computers? New after-school programs? Every principal said the same thing: Help us remove the 5% of students who are disruptive and make it almost impossible for the other 95% to learn. It's a problem familiar to schools all over the U.S., especially urban ones like those in Baltimore — underfunded, often with unwieldy classes of 30 or more students, many of whom have grown up in broken homes and with little discipline.

Working with the Baltimore schools, Abell came up with an innovative solution: send some of the class cutups and brawlers 6,000 miles away to a school the foundation dubbed Baraka — Swahili for "blessing." So far, the program has accommodated only about 40 students a year, less than 1% of the middle school enrollment — not nearly enough to achieve the classroom tranquillity in Baltimore that was the initial goal. But in its four years, Baraka has delivered an unexpected bonus. It has turned around the lives of most of the students who have gone there. Many of them, like Brandon, were bright and able to learn once they were removed from the negative influences of their neighborhoods and from their often troubled families. "The pattern for a lot of our kids is so devastating," says Kristy Ward, a teacher at Northeast Middle School in Baltimore. "They don't just need smaller classes and better-run schools. They need to get out."

This is a controversial idea. When Newt Gingrich in 1994 advocated bringing back state-run orphanages for children most at risk of becoming criminals, he was ridiculed and called a racist. But since then, a movement toward residential learning has been quietly gaining steam — and often wins support from the parents of troubled youth. Residential schools focusing on needy children have opened in Philadelphia, West Trenton, N.J., and Washington, and three pilot programs have started in Minnesota.

As he launched his program in Baltimore, Embry at first looked to build a residential school somewhere in the U.S., but the costs were so high he felt he could never reach enough students. So he instead chose a spot beneath the foothills of Mount Kenya, where land is cheap and his teachers, half of whom are Kenyan, are willing to work for salaries as low as $5,000 a year. The focus is on boys (who more often than girls pose disciplinary problems) in the seventh and eighth grades. "That's when we lose them," says Embry. Baraka tries to save the boys with strong discipline, "tons and tons" of adult attention and an accelerated academic program that will be a source of pride to them when they return to Baltimore.

"It was hell," says Brandon of his first year at Baraka. He kept talking back to his teachers, again and again, and landed in the "boma," a crude, isolated group of tents surrounded by thornbushes that Baraka used for punishment. For smaller matters like swearing or sleeping in class, discipline worked on a point system. Staying out of trouble earned students safaris, video nights and trips to the Kenyan capital of Nairobi, three hours south of the school.

Brandon had never really studied before; he hadn't brought a single book home from school. At Baraka he had to adjust to the rigorous classes designed to raise the students up to grade level. That typically meant cramming five years of learning into two years.

The nearest town — and telephone — is at Nanyuki, a 30-minute jeep drive away, on a dirt road. There, the boys experience a sort of role reversal. The local Kenyan kids — shoeless, many of them hanging out on the street corner sniffing glue — stare at the American boys' Nike high-tops and beg for money. Suddenly the students are no longer apprentice hoodlums from the slums; they're rich Americans with more than enough to eat, and bright opportunities.

Seeing themselves in this new context seems to help many of the Baraka kids redirect their lives. Kevin Prem, now 15, joined a gang when he was only 10. By the time he was 12, his two older brothers and nine of his friends had dropped out of school. At Baraka, though, Kevin got his temper under control and won five awards for academic excellence. Now he plans to be a prosecuting attorney, so he can put in jail "people who sell drugs to kids." Daryl Stewart, now 16, had been kicked out of six schools before going to Baraka. Today he's a sophomore at prestigious City College High School (a public magnet school that sends 93% of its students to college) and hopes to be a professional photographer.

But putting together more than 40 boys with this many needs for 10 months at a time, supervised by 12 low-paid faculty, can be risky. Last year, after the school's director fired three popular African-American dorm counselors, the boys became increasingly defiant. At one point they surrounded and threatened a teacher. Seventeen of the 44 boys were sent home.

Embry blames the uprising on uneven rule enforcement and poor management, and insists that better leadership and faculty selection will prevent a recurrence. He also believes that the school needs a mix of kids, not just ones who have been disruptive, and that Baraka needs to screen out students with serious psychological problems.

There's another challenge to the success of Baraka or any similar boarding school: What happens when the kids come back to the city? The Abell Foundation steers the boys away from their neighborhood schools, placing the top students into City College High School and most of the others into parochial St. Frances Academy, tuition free. But the boys still must renegotiate their lives outside school, where many of their friends have dropped out and become involved with drugs and crime.

For some, this may be impossible, says Sister John Francis Schilling, who as principal of St. Frances has watched 18 Baraka boys try to readjust to life in Baltimore. Her school is located in one of the city's most crime-ridden neighborhoods. Yet a remarkable 90% of its students go on to college. Most of them are the first in their families to apply. Schilling agrees that Baltimore needs a boarding school, but wants it located in the city. "You can't take them away for the rest of their lives," she says. "The boys have to learn how to deal with this environment."

Her doubts about Baraka are shared by some members of the Baltimore board of education, which is sending two of its members to Kenya in November to evaluate the school and recommend whether to partly fund it in the future. Annual expenses now run about $14,000 per student. Embry is asking the city to pay half that amount — a sum slightly higher than what it costs the city and state combined to educate a child in the local schools. If the board declines, Embry says, his foundation will close Baraka. If the city does make a long-term commitment, Embry says, he will look to open more such schools in places where expenses are low.

Brandon would like to see more Baltimore kids go to Baraka. "I learned self-control," he says. "I learned not to be a ringleader or a crowd follower." Passing near Harlem Park, his old middle school, he seems embarrassed by the boarded-up row houses, the trash-strewn streets, the bars on the school windows. Like a nervous out-of-towner, Brandon begs a visitor to speed up the car. "I never go outside," he says. "I ain't associatin' with them hoodlums."