Taking Root

Maryland’s only public boarding school puts at-risk students on track for college.

By Andrew Zaleski - September 2015

Taking Root

Maryland’s only public boarding school puts at-risk students on track for college.

By Andrew Zaleski - September 2015

Head of school Jon Tucker and student director Tiffany Evans. -Photography by Mike Morgan

Christopher Miller grew up in Park Heights, in a neighborhood inundated with drugs, crime, and gang influence. “It’s pretty bad around here,” the 18-year-old says. “It’s not a place you want to be out after nine at night.” Most of his childhood friends dropped out long before finishing high school, adds Miller, who will start at Allegheny College, a private, four-year liberal arts school in Western Pennsylvania, this fall. The most common reasons, he says, are “either they got pregnant or got someone pregnant, or they’re in a gang.” Others who did manage to stay in school didn’t exactly thrive, getting discouraged over time by the lack of individual attention from teachers, who had too many kids in class and not enough time to focus one-on-one when they needed help.

Struggling neighborhoods and overmatched schools generally go together, and they don’t often lead to teenagers working in a lab at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine—as Miller did last summer—or taking college-level calculus at Morgan State University, which he also has done. For Miller, the difference has been The SEED School of Maryland, the state’s only public boarding school, where he started as a sixth-grader in 2008 and graduated with the school’s inaugural class in May. Located in Southwest Baltimore, with a 52-acre campus and new, college-type dormitories, it’s not that far from Park Heights, but feels as though it’s a million miles away.

What makes The SEED School unique from every other public school, charter or otherwise, in Maryland, is that five days of every week—from Sunday evening through Friday afternoon—students remain on campus in a tightly structured environment. They live in dorm-style rooms, divided among 24, single-sex “houses” named after U.S. colleges and universities, with meals provided by an on-campus catering staff. Weekday classes go from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and mandatory study hall takes place every day after school.

What also distinguishes SEED is that its students, like Miller, come from socioeconomic backgrounds that are the opposite of what comes to mind when we think of traditional boarding school students.

Each year, SEED students are picked from a lottery of rising sixth-graders who meet certain eligibility criteria. For starters, they must live in a household whose income is no more than 2.5 times the state poverty level (currently $24,250 for a family of four). Students must meet at least two other at-risk criteria, as well. For example: Is the head of the student’s household a single parent? Does the student have a record of school suspensions? Of chronic truancy? Is the student eligible for free school lunch?

But the message that every SEED School student receives from the outset is the same as any elite boarding school student: We expect you to attend college, and we’re preparing you for just that. In that way, The SEED School combines the “no excuses” charter school model made famous by the Harlem Children’s Zone with a boarding culture adopted by its predecessor, The SEED School of Washington, D.C.

“I wanted to be at a place where not going to college was not an option.”

After then-Mayor Martin O’Malley visited the D.C. school in 2005, he expressed interest in school founders Eric Adler and Raj Vinnakota building one in Baltimore. The following year, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation approving funding for a public boarding school, effectively allowing the construction of The SEED School in Baltimore, although students would be eligible to apply from all over the state.

“These are not students who, in my opinion, would’ve been college-bound without this,” says Nancy Grasmick, who was Maryland state superintendant of schools when the legislation passed in the General Assembly. “Yes, it is a fairly revolutionary idea, but the results are such that it proves that in the right circumstances, with the kind of structured environment the school provides, these students can be successful.”

At SEED, a student doesn’t have to worry about food insecurity, or finding the money for computers, books, pens, or paper. Getting home at night in a violent neighborhood isn’t a concern—“I know what goes on in Baltimore City,” says Duane Hudson, 16, a rising junior who lives near North Avenue, close to Druid Hill Park. “But from Sunday through Friday, I’m here. I’m protected here.” An athlete will always have a field for practice and small class sizes ensure students get personal instruction. Miller says his largest class at SEED was 15 students; his smallest had only one other student.

It’s also not uncommon for teachers to live on campus, as director of student life Tiffany Evans has done since the school opened. Evans supervises a 47-person student life staff in charge of character education every Monday through Thursday evening, during which time students learn a variety of life skills. “We’re teaching students about respect and responsibility,” Evans says. “Students are learning about social skills, learning how to interact, what saying, ‘No,’ means, being responsible with their actions, learning how to sit at a table appropriately. We’re wrapping the student with every support possible.”

A staff of mental health counselors and social workers on campus provides free mental health services all day and off-hours as needs arise.

Valedictorian Stephanie Keyaka, who emigrated with her family from Cameroon when she was 5, was raised with four siblings in a noisy apartment complex in Prince George’s County and says she needed a school without distractions and where falling behind was unacceptable. “I wanted to be at a place where not going to college is not an option,” says Keyaka, who is headed to Penn State on a full-tuition scholarship to study political science. “From day one, SEED was always like: ‘You can be whoever you want to be, and we’re going to do everything in our power for you to be that person.’”

For instance, when she interned at the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, one of her teachers drove to a local Ann Taylor store and helped her get a fitted suit.

Advanced Placement classes, internships, travel programs, and other experiences—typical for students from more privileged backgrounds—are also ways of life at SEED. Diana Bobb, a 17-year-old from East Baltimore and another member of the 2015 class, has been on study tours to Mexico and Nicaragua; she will be pre-med at the University of Dayton.

“Being at SEED made me realize that I don’t want to ever take any time off from school, because if I take a break, I’m going to get too comfortable,” she says. “Some of my friends took a year off from high school after graduating. Some of them are older than me [and still out of school].”

Overall, SEED students get an introduction to what life is like on a college campus, which is crucial, says head of school Jon Tucker, a first-generation college student himself. “I didn’t have an adult in my family who could tell me what being on a college campus was like, and it wasn’t for a lack of love in my household,” he says.

“From day one, SEED was always: ‘You can be whoever you want to be.’”

None of this is to say that the going has been easy. In 2011, The Sun reported SEED students “performed above the state average on reading and math tests only once” in the school’s first three years, highlighting the challenge of taking on students who often enter below grade-level in reading. Today, however, more than 55 percent of sophomores scored proficient in reading on state tests, and 90 percent were proficient in math, compared to 51 percent and 57 percent, respectively, in Baltimore.

Also, the 29 students graduating this year are a far cry from the 80 that originally started as sixth-graders. That retention number is somewhat mitigated by the fact all schools experience turnover each year, but since SEED only accepts students as sixth-graders, it does not bring “replacement” or transfer students into the equation. Nonetheless, administrators are working to improve retention, adding things like sports teams as the school has grown to full capacity and 400 students.

Probably the best sign for The SEED School model comes from a Harvard-led study of the D.C. one in 2012. Research showed SEED schools have the power to eliminate the minority achievement gap and even students who spend just a year at the school are likely to see significant academic and future earning benefits.

Of course, The SEED School of Maryland has advantages public schools don’t receive, especially in Baltimore. Despite its classification as a state school, SEED functions more like a private institution with its own board, and receives $10 million each year from Maryland to pay for transportation, boarding, and program administration. Additional funding comes from the local school jurisdictions in which each SEED student permanently resides, while big-name private donors provide the rest.

It works out to about $30,000 for each student, compared to Baltimore, where per-pupil spending was $16,578, according to data from 2013.

Perhaps there’s an argument to be had about the implicit inequality buried into the founding of such a school and how much SEED’s success matters if it can’t be replicated on a broader scale. But the school’s success also raises a question: Why, if it’s proven to change lives, can’t similar funding be located and allocated for thousands more at-risk students?

That question seems particularly relevant these days when driving to The SEED School takes you near the public housing project where Freddie Gray was arrested. In that moment, there comes the recognition of the deeper value of SEED, the thing that $30,000 per pupil, per year, really buys: the ability for a young person to be looked at as an asset, as valuable, as someone who needs to be preserved, protected, and pushed forward in life. For The SEED School of Maryland’s 2015 graduating class, there is no sweeter, better feeling.

“SEED’s greatness doesn’t lie in what SEED did do for us, but in what SEED did not do. SEED never made us feel inadequate,” Keyaka said during her valedictory address. “SEED never discouraged us from daring to dream, never treated us like we were just average, and never dissuaded us from thinking that we can be better tomorrow than we are today. . . . And, most importantly, there was never a time when we felt unwanted or unloved.”

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