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How this Baltimore charter school puts kids in charge of their futures

Baltimore has long struggled with poverty, crime, high unemployment and a low public high school graduation rate -- around 70 percent. But one charter school for sixth through twelfth graders is bucking that trend, graduating 95 percent of seniors and sending them on to colleges or careers. Special correspondent Hari Sreenivasan reports on the unconventional curriculum of the Green Street Academy.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Baltimore is a city that has long struggled with poverty, crime and a high unemployment rate. Another crucial challenge to tackling those problems, public high school graduation rates that are currently around 70 percent.

    Special correspondent Hari Sreenivasan recently visited a charter middle and high school bucking those trends, graduating 95 percent of seniors and sending them on to colleges or careers.

    His report is the latest in our special series on Rethinking College and part of our regular education segment, Making the Grade.

  • Nicole McClinton Wilks:

    Thank you for giving us this day to watch over Jordan and Amanda.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Every day begins with a prayer in the home of Nicole McClinton Wilks and her two children, Amanda and Jordan Westbrook.

    McClinton Wilks, a single mom who works as a security guard and has to leave early for work, worries about Amanda's safety on her morning commute through the surrounding neighborhoods.

    But she's relieved when Amanda arrives at her destination, an educational oasis in the heart of West Baltimore. Amanda, who is 17, is a senior at the Green Street Academy, a 6th-through-12th-grade charter school started in 2010 that currently has about 850 students.

    In many ways, it's a typical school, with courses like science and Spanish. But there's a lot about Green Street that's not typical for an urban school. Students here are exposed to a wide range of opportunities to explore and learn outside of the classroom.

    On a recent afternoon, Amanda and her classmates tended to a flock of well-loved chickens on the eight-acre farm behind the school.

  • Amanda Westbrook:

    We produce the chicken eggs, and we will sell it to different places like stores and restaurants around the neighborhood to work with these animals and stuff to actually get that hands-on experience. It just makes me happy.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Four years ago, the school moved to its current location, a renovated historic building that was once a junior high before being abandoned about 30 years ago.

    There's a lottery to get in. Last year, more than 1,000 applied for 250 openings. According to the school, 90 percent of graduating seniors in the spring were accepted into two- and four-year college programs. In a greenhouse, students learn to grow produce and incorporate it into meals they make at pop-up restaurants.

    Tanks full of tilapia and perch in the school's basement provide hands-on exposure to aquaculture, one of the country's fastest growing food production industries. All that training and other career-focused courses like construction management and nursing are part of the school's primary goal, to give students the skills and experiences they need to be successful after high school, ready for both college and careers.

  • Crystal Harden-Lindsey:

    I think adults sometimes kind of limit kids' options by telling them that it has to be one way or the other, when, at our school, it's not like that at all.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Crystal Harden-Lindsey is the executive director of the school. Every morning, she and other senior staff visit classrooms to check on students; 97 percent of Green Street students qualify for free or reduced lunches.

    Students who need extra support get regular counseling and tutoring. Harden-Lindsey says one of the school's top priorities, getting students into high-quality paid internships, has been a big boost to students and their families.

  • Crystal Harden-Lindsey:

    What we do at Green Street is, we provide a way for them to make money while going to school, kind of restructure the trajectory of their lives by saying, you can make money, you can also give back to your community, you can also go to college. It doesn't have to be you choose one or the other. It can be a combination of things.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    That dual emphasis on college and careers is reinforced throughout students' time at Green Street.

    By ninth grade, students are required to have resumes, and they are encouraged to consider careers they may not have.

  • Woman:

    I want us to take a deeper look into STEM fields and STEM jobs.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    College logos line the school's hallways, and seniors have to apply to at least one community college or university. Several counselors stay on top of their plans.

  • Woman:

    I would like for you to do a little bit more research and pick one more Maryland college.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    On a recent afternoon, the school's seniors gathered for a class meeting about the year ahead.

  • Tia-Shon Kelley:

    I need our Green Street kids to go in there and wow people.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Tia-Shon Kelley is the director of internships and student enrichment at Green Street. She was promoting an internship through an organization called Urban Alliance, which provides intensive workplace training.

    Students are then placed in paid internships with Baltimore businesses, including Bank of America and Johns Hopkins. A few land permanent jobs after they graduate.

  • Tia-Shon Kelley:

    I'm going to specifically speak to those of you who know you are not going to college. If you need a full-time job when you graduate, this is your shot.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For the past three years, Kelley has been building the school's internship program, and now close to 60 percent of the high school students participate, but she says it's not always easy.

  • Tia-Shon Kelley:

    I felt like some of our kids have stopped dreaming. Like, when you ask them what you want to be, it's very flatline, because they don't believe it can happen for them. It happens for everybody else.

    So, letting them see, hey, this is your peer, they did John Hopkins last year, they loved it, they're going to do it again this year, you try it. Or try the law program. We have law links. Just keeping them exposed.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Amanda Westbrook has participated in several internships, including one with Kaiser Permanente, where her payment was a $1,000 college scholarship.

    That will come in handy next year. She's currently applying to colleges and hopes to be a marine biologist one day.

  • Man:

    Try that piece right there.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Amanda's big brother, Jordan, who graduated from Green Street last spring, decided to go the career route. He's now in a paid construction training program, earning certifications.

  • Jordan Westbrook:

    I knew I didn't really want to go to college, so I just knew that, once I graduated, I really wanted to get a job. I'm pretty good with my hands, so I want to do construction.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Mom Nicole McClinton Wilks says Green Street has given her children opportunities that matched their interests.

  • Nicole McClinton Wilks:

    Amanda wants school. Jordan doesn't want school. Jordan, this is what he wants, not my dreams, but his dreams. And that's what I like. They don't sell a fake dream here. They give you reality.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For most Green Street graduates, the reality is school and work go hand in hand.

  • Micaela Wilson-Wheatley:

    The pancreas is right here.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Recent grad Micaela Wilson-Wheatley is at Coppin State University just 10 minutes away from Green Street. While studying to eventually become an OB-GYN, she's also working part-time. She says Green Street prepared her to juggle both.

  • Micaela Wilson-Wheatley:

    I was prepared, based on my time management, because that's one thing they always, always stressed, time management, don't procrastinate, get it done on time.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Back at Green Street Academy, students are harvesting apples and enjoying the fruits of their labor. And in the coming months, the school will begin a capital campaign for a new innovation center focused on living wage career training for both students and their parents.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Hari Sreenivasan in Baltimore, Maryland.

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