Once home to more than 2,500 high school students, the old Southwestern High School this spring was little more than a hulking concrete structure in danger of being overtaken by weeds. Inside it was like a time capsule: school banners hung limp against the walls, hoops slumbered on the shadowy, indoor basketball court, old desks gathered dust inside the auditorium where they were stored when the school was shuttered over a year ago. It's as if Southwestern has been waiting for the students to return. And in August, they will do just that.
Southwestern High School is now the home of the SEED School of Maryland, a new statewide, public, college-preparatory boarding school. The school's goal is to take at-risk, disadvantaged students who are underperforming and put them into a highly supportive, residential program away from the environmental factors that can bar the way to success in school. The first SEED school opened in Washington, D.C. as a charter school in 1998. The Baltimore location is its first expansion.
"Students will be in an environment where there are high expectations," says JoAnne Carter, deputy state superintendent for instruction and academic acceleration at the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE). "They will also have role models who will talk to them, not only about their academic performance, but about life skills so that these students can learn some of the ways in which students are expected to conduct themselves. We think this model, implemented properly, will keep these students from falling through the cracks."
In a way, the SEED School is an idea that has come home. Eric Adler, cofounder and managing director of the SEED Foundation with Rajiv Vinnakota, came up with the idea of a public boarding school while teaching physics at St. Paul's School, a private school in Baltimore County. Watching students there on scholarships, he was struck by their struggles. The students rose extremely early to ride multiple buses to get to school and returned home to friends who mocked their uniforms. They lived in noisy homes and juggled household chores like babysitting and meal preparation with their studies. Sure, these were exceptional kids who qualified for scholarships against all odds. But what about all the other kids—who are not scholarship material—who are facing those same hardships but who lacked the safe, nurturing environment needed to get through to graduation? Adler realized that if you could control those environmental factors, the students had a better chance to succeed.
"Our target population is kids for whom boarding will make all the difference. There are kids out there that are living under difficult circumstances," says Adler. "There's a reasonably good chance those situations aren't going to work out with college at the end of the rainbow. If we could just control the clock 24 hours a day for that child, the odds are the situation is going to work out."
For students who were falling through the cracks in the larger public school system, Adler and Vinnakota decided that if they could manufacture the supports that give upper-middle class teenagers the edge they need to succeed—things like access to SAT prep courses, adequate counseling, and quiet study time—they could put kids on the road to college. They test-drove their concept with the SEED School of Washington, D.C.
That school now houses 325 students on just over four acres in southeast Washington. The school's success has drawn nods from Oprah and celebrity visits from the likes of Prince Charles.
As will be the case at the Maryland school, students in D.C. live in dormitories from Sunday evening through Friday afternoon. (There is not enough funding to keep the dormitories open on the weekends.) The dorms are broken into small "houses," each named for a college, and overseen by a life skills counselor.
A bulletin board in the main academic building lists the schools at which SEED students have been accepted, attesting to the success of the school's college prep model. A whopping 97 percent of SEED graduates are accepted to colleges. So far, the class of 2008 can choose from Emory University, UVA, Case Western, Syracuse, and many more.
That's what Maryland's state education department likes to see, because tests show that successful elementary students tend to get lost in the system as they move through middle school, leaving a big question mark at the end of high school. "They have a track record with their D.C. school that shows they have been successful," says MSDE's JoAnne Carter. "The students came in under-performing and are being accepted into prestigious schools around the country."
Aisha Ford, 22, graduated from SEED in D.C. in 2004, and just graduated with a degree in sociology/anthropology from Ohio Wesleyan. She remembers that, unlike her regular public school, the SEED School wasn't overcrowded and she could get more individual attention. And she liked that she could take experiential travel abroad trips. She went to Greece in eighth grade and Costa Rica in tenth grade. Plus, she was excited to live on campus with her friends. She describes dorm life as being "like one big sleepover."
"I didn't know if I wanted to go to college, but I knew I wanted a better future, and when I went to the SEED School, college was something that was stressed from day one," she recalls. "SEED School provides structure and time management and that's important for students."
She adds that, "In education, parents and students should have the option to choose their path. Some people can go to regular public school and do well in a public school setting, and some people need smaller classrooms with more opportunities outside the classroom. SEED kind of gives balance and choice."
Even as dandelions sprouted on the old football field, the rumble of construction equipment could be heard on the Baltimore campus when SEED held its first open houses this past spring. New dormitories were being constructed, one old school building was being prepared for demolition, and the main Southwestern academic building was in line to get a major makeover in anticipation of the arrival of the 80 sixth-grade boys and girls who will be the foundation of the new school. It will eventually hold 400 students in grades 6 through 12. Fliers promoting the SEED School of Maryland went out through the school system, community groups, and counselors. The response has been overwhelming—more than 600 families requested applications for the first vacancies, which are selected by a lottery.
Cheryl and Leo Bryant came to the open house to research SEED as a possibility for their daughter, Kayla, after they heard about the school through the Family League of Baltimore. Although Kayla's currently a fourth grader and not eligible to apply for another year, her mother wanted to start looking at options early. Cheryl says she's happy with Kayla's elementary school in Baltimore County, but says the middle schools and high schools lack structure and do not push the students to get to college. She's concerned that those factors can lead to violence in the schools, as well.
"I think this kind of school will give kids a chance to focus. When they're back and forth during the day and watching TV and hanging out with friends, they can lose their focus," Cheryl says. "I like the stats of how successful the students are. I like the concept that they aren't just talking about their lives now, in school, but preparing them for life after school."
Both former Mayor Martin O'Malley, prior to his election as Governor, and current Mayor Sheila Dixon lobbied hard to get the school placed at the old Southwestern campus. And the students at the D.C. SEED School are a little jealous of their neighbors to the north. The new campus sits on a 52-acre green oasis in the city. It boasts a football field, a 900-seat auditorium, and two basketball courts. Maryland students will have limited access to cell phones, much to the chagrin of D.C. students, who are not allowed phones. The school is still working out some of the kinks that come with operating a statewide program, such as how to provide transportation to needy students. Unlike the D.C. school, which is 97 percent African-American, the Maryland school will represent the racial and socio-geographic diversity of the entire state with students potentially attending from 11 Maryland counties and Baltimore City, including some from the Eastern Shore and western Maryland. What they will have in common is the struggle to succeed.
"They do not have to have demonstrated that they are academically talented or a talented athlete or musician or anything else," says Adler of the school's requirements. "We're not picking kids on their demonstrated talent. We think they're all talented, it's just that some of them haven't had the right circumstance in which to demonstrate those talents."
What students in Maryland do need is documentation that they are both at-risk and disadvantaged. Generally, SEED students are performing below grade level when they enter the program and must meet a number of other criteria—being from a single-parent household, a household with a parent in prison, or qualifying for free and reduced meals, for example—to apply to the school. Once they get to the school, students must be ready to work. The school also likes to keep parents engaged in the school even though it is a boarding environment.
"The typical SEED students and their parents, first of all, see college as part of their picture, and they see SEED as being the best experience to get them to college," says Dawn Lewis, the head of the new Maryland school. "They are students who have experienced challenges academically. So their transcripts may not say gifted and talented at this point, but that doesn't mean they aren't. We want to access their gifts and talents that have not been accessed before."
Although SEED is a public—aka free—school, it is really the result of a public-private partnership. The SEED Foundation secures private money to build the school and the state provides the operating costs. JoAnne Carter explains that SEED will receive 85 percent of the state per-pupil funding the student would receive had he stayed in his home county, plus an additional $2 million a year for transportation support and program administration. In Maryland, $30 million was privately raised to fund the $60 million project (the rest will be financed). Private donations came from the usual generous suspects—the Weinberg, Abell, and France-Merrick foundations—but was anchored by a "seed" gift of $5 million from Art and Pat Modell. Pat Modell says the school fulfills her own long-time dream to remedy the plight of challenged students.
"I had always been thinking to find a solution to the children I read about in the paper who wandered the street at night or went to school in the morning with nothing to eat," she recalls. "I happened to meet [Adler and Vinnakota], who had a dream."
After she visited the D.C. school and saw how happy and engaged the students were, she was sold on the concept. "I saw students who were laughing, courteous, and learning so much," she states. "They didn't look hungry or angry or bleak as you so often see on the street. It's amazing how that little help can change lives." Not only does she expect that the students will achieve academically, she hopes the school instills gratitude that will inspire a new generation of philanthropists.
Adler has similar aspirations that his graduates will become successful, not only in the wider world, but in their own communities, where they can be role models for other students trying to succeed against the odds.
"We need to teach kids how to live in whatever world they live in and do so successfully. We do not want to create a world where they leave the neighborhood they've grown up in and never go back; we're trying to create a world where they go back successfully with confidence about who they are."