Mary Scanlan Mary Scanlan

POV: Can you give us a brief background on the Baraka School's founding and history? What does "Baraka" mean?

Mary Scanlan: The Baraka School (Baraka means "blessing" in Swahili) was founded in 1996 by the Abell Foundation in response to a request by the Baltimore City Public Schools. They asked for help with the population of students who were not succeeding academically and/or socially and who were causing disruption in the classes. Unfortunately, boys are most at risk for not graduating on time and a decision was made to work with middle school boys where long-term changes are more likely to take place. It was also determined that to achieve the best results they needed to remove the students completely from their environments, providing academic remediation and behavior modification. These young boys (12 years old) were provided the tools to not only succeed in middle school but they were also better prepared to navigate high school upon their return to Baltimore.

POV: Who funds the program? Why did they choose Africa for the location?

Boys of Baraka - The boys in a classroom in Africa The boys in a classroom in Africa

Scanlan: Once a decision was made that the school would be a boarding school, the search began for a location. The school was fortunate to find a benefactor who very generously provided the land in Africa and the Abell Foundation provided the funds to build the school. Initially the Abell Foundation solely funded all the costs of running the school; however, in the last three years of the program the Baltimore City School System contributed approximately 1/3 of the per pupil cost (at that time the annual per pupil cost was approximately $18,000).

POV: How were the teachers recruited? How were they trained? What were they paid?

Scanlan: The teachers were recruited mainly through job fairs at universities and colleges. In the later years, jobs were posted on the Internet. The ideal candidate for a teacher or counselor position would have a strong desire to help youth, enjoy travel and yet be able to live with just the essentials and enjoy an outdoor experience. The positions were often compared to a Peace Corp job, as the pay was merely a stipend (approximately $5,000 a year).

POV: How were students selected for the program?

Scanlan: Approximately 10 middle schools in Baltimore City were visited every fall by the recruitment coordinator; however, any 6th grade boy attending a Baltimore City public school could apply to the Baraka School. Word would spread fast about the school and applications were handed out in almost every middle school in Baltimore. There were only three requirements for application to the school:

  1. You must be a male;
  2. You must currently be enrolled in 6th grade at a Baltimore City Public School, and;
  3. You must have a strong desire to change your life.

It did not matter if you were failing all subjects, were chronically absent from school or perhaps even suspended, you were encouraged to apply. In fact, those were just the type of students the Baraka School was trying to reach -- the ones least likely to graduate from high school, no matter what the reason. Once an application was submitted, an admissions committee reviewed the application, an interview was conducted, and recommendations from former teachers were scrutinized. The school served 7th and 8th grade students, with acceptances taken only at the 7th grade level. The total school population could not exceed 50; therefore, most classes were in the 20-25 range.

POV: What curriculum was used at the Baraka School?

Boys of Baraka - With no televisions, radios or Game Boys, the boys entertain themselves by playing soccer in Africa.

With no televisions, radios or Game Boys, the boys entertain themselves by playing soccer in Africa.

Scanlan: Initially, the Baraka School used the Calvert School curriculum (a leading home-school curriculum); however, through the years it was determined that many of the students needed significant remediation and the school started using Direct Instruction. Direct Instruction proved to be ideal in teaching these students, and progress was made. Additionally, counselors worked with the students on behavior modification, including group meetings daily. Again, significant improvements were noted in the students.

POV: What were the results? Have there been improvements in test scores, behavior, quantitative assessments, etc.?

Scanlan: Although most of the students enjoyed improved test scores, the ultimate goal of the program was to provide these students a better chance at successfully completing high school. The two years spent in Kenya provided them a small "hiatus" from the challenges that faced them in Baltimore City. While the majority of these young men returned to their old neighborhoods, it was hoped that they had been given the tools to help them make better choices both academically and socially. Some graduates succumbed to their old ways, while many others went on to not only complete high school but to go on to college or military service.

POV: Why did the Abell Foundation pull funds the second year and not have a back-up plan? What did they do to assist the kids who couldn't return for their second year?

Scanlan: In 2003, the Abell Foundation made the decision to temporarily close the school because of political unrest and the overall situation in the world. The decision was made, rightfully so, for the safety of the children. Unfortunately, things have not changed much since 2003 and the foundation is unlikely to fund the school in the near future. However, we can all hold hope.

POV: What is the future of the Baraka School? Why couldn't they move the school elsewhere?

Scanlan: Although it is doubtful that the Baraka School will re-open in the near future, there are plans for a SEED School to open in Baltimore as early as 2008. The SEED School in Washington, D.C. has enjoyed tremendous success, and although they do not specifically target the children who are most at risk (as the Baraka School did), it will clearly benefit the youth of Baltimore.

Find out more about the SEED School in the film update »

Read more about the Baraka School in articles and links in the resource section »