On a warm Saturday in late May 2008, my wife, Ann, talked me into going to an auditorium in Baltimore to watch a lottery. It was no ordinary lottery. Numbered balls were cranked out of a bingo machine, and the winners got a ticket to a better life.
It was the lottery to choose the first 80 students to attend a new public college-prep boarding school: the SEED School of Maryland based in Baltimore. (My wife chairs the foundation behind the SEED schools.) SEED Maryland – SEED already had a branch in the District of Columbia – was admitting boys and girls from some of the toughest streets and dysfunctional schools in Maryland, and particularly Baltimore, beginning in sixth grade. Five days a week, they would live at the school in a dormitory with counselors – insulated from the turmoil of their neighborhoods – and take buses home on weekends.
Last Saturday, I attended the graduation of that first class.
In a city that has made headlines lately for police brutality against African-Americans and inner-city rage, the graduation was a balm. The audience was packed with mostly African-Americans who had come to see, in many cases, the first in their families graduate from high school and head to a four-year college. But it was also filled with supporters, funders and teachers of all races.
Starting such a school, persuading parents to send their kids to the first class, persuading kids to live away from home and take buses back all over Maryland every weekend, was hard. And the black and white SEED community did that hard work together.
As the saying goes: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Unfortunately, not everyone made it to the finish line: Of the 80 who won the lottery that day in 2008, only 29 stuck it out or made it from sixth grade to graduation. The good news is that the graduates are going to the University of Virginia, the University of Wisconsin, University of Michigan, USC, Villanova and others; one is joining the Coast Guard.
Several things struck me. One was the kindness with which the young men and women who had been living together in dorms since sixth grade treated one another. The class valedictorian, Stephanie Keyaka, who is going to Penn State, spoke touchingly about her classmates in her speech and seemed to speak for all when she said, “Today we say goodbye to the world of lockers without locks, to the world of having the confidence to leave a laptop in a hallway certain that it will be there when we return.” The next phase will not be so nurturing, she added, but that didn’t matter – SEED left them all with a lot of “grit.”
Then she concluded: “SEED’s greatness, however, doesn’t lie in what SEED did do, but what SEED did not do for us. SEED never made us feel inadequate; SEED never discouraged us from daring to dream. … And, most importantly, there was never a time when we felt unwanted or unloved.”
When I asked Devin Tingle, who’s going to the Illinois Institute of Technology, what he took most from SEED, he cited the summer science internships and the fact that “this school teaches eight core values,” which he then ticked off: “respect, responsibility, self-determination, self-discipline, empathy, compassion, perseverance and integrity. This school teaches these core values from sixth grade until we graduate.”
I asked Education Secretary Arne Duncan what he thought generally about the public boarding school model, which is expensive. He said, “Some kids need six hours a day, some nine, some 12 to 13,” but some clearly would benefit from a more “24/7” school/community environment.
“I went to Baltimore and talked to teachers after the riots,” Duncan added. “The number of kids living with no family member is stunning. But who is there 24/7? The gangs. At a certain point, you need love and structure, and either traditional societal institutions provide that or somebody else does. We get outcompeted by the gangs, who are there every day on those corners.” So quality public boarding schools need to be “part of a portfolio of options for kids.”
All the SEED graduates seemed to have some family present at the ceremony. Indeed, these kids are visibly bearing the hopes of a lot of people. (I was in the men’s room and overhead a father telling his young child that he had to learn to go “pee-pee” so he could attend nursery school next fall and one day be like his sibling who just graduated SEED.)
The incoming CEO of SEED, Lesley Poole, remarked to me: “I passed a family coming in, and I turned to them and asked: ‘Do you have a student graduating?’ And they said, ‘Yes, and we are so excited.’
“What you see today is a victory for not just the students graduating, but also for a community. No family just has the mom or the grandmother here. There are cousins and neighbors - people who were skeptical of this whole model. … Dreams are coming true today, and not just the dream of high school graduation, but the dream of college graduation. At a time when our country is facing a number of challenges and so many places where it is clear we don’t agree - and the fear among some people that the American dream is not for everybody - for them, the American dream may just be one step and one day closer.”