Unfinished Work: Baltimore Academy of Excellence Looks to Future

The Baltimore Academy of Excellence (BAE) is located on the 4200 block of Belair Road in Baltimore, next to Herring Run Park.1 It was founded by Jacqui Gough (see photo 1) almost three years ago, supported by the Greater Grace World Outreach, a nationwide, nondenominational church that places great emphasis on urban outreach projects. Though popular with its students, it received little attention until August 1997, when the Baltimore Sun ran an article on it.2 BAE offers classes from kindergarten through high school. The school is state certified but rarely has any interference from the state. BAE last year had 23 students and 22 teachers, though it has capacity for 100. All staff members are volunteers. The typical student is African-American, from a single-parent family, below the poverty line.

Indeed, the school was established because of the crying need for effective education for inner-city Baltimore children. The school grew out of a ‘Noah’s Arc’ Bible club started by the Greater Grace church. This evolved into a Saturday School, because so many of the Noah’s Arc children were illiterate. The Saturday School in turn further developed to teach math, science and history, as well as English. The next step was obvious – and in February 1996 the Baltimore Academy of Excellence opened its doors to 15 students enrolled full time.

Although none of the teachers at BAE is certified, each displays extraordinary dedication. Some of the volunteers have other, full-time jobs, which they work at night so as to be able to reach the BAE pupils during the day. Their work is cut out for them: Entering students’ highest reading level is about 3rd grade, regardless of age. This must be increased to SAT standards before the child graduates. Some ex-public-school 14-years-olds cannot read at all upon enrollment. The school uses both the SAT and California Achievement Test (CAT) to determine students’ progress. Founder Jacqui Gough places emphasis on good academics, sacrifice and commitment to the children.

All the students at BAE are ex-public-school students. Gough says this necessitates a “transition period” because “everything is different.” One aspect of this is insisting upon parental involvement. BAE has nearly 100 percent attendance at PTA meetings. The parents also have to opportunity for self-help through parenting classes offered by the school (which helps with reading for semi-literate parents).

So far, the school has apparently met with great success. It currently claims 11 students specifically referred by the public-school system, the latter unable to meet their needs. BAE staff clearly disprove the oft-made union claim that private schools accept the cream-of-the-crop pupils, leaving the worst students for the public schools to handle. BAE has yet to reject anyone from its classrooms. The school does test incoming students, but only for the purpose of grade placement.

Gough cites class size and personal tutoring as important ingredients in the BAE recipe. The student-to-teacher ratio is almost one-to-one. The school has a typical schedule of math, current events, English, music, art, speech, history, science, phys ed, home ec and shop. Additionally, some local area professionals volunteer an hour or two a week to teach the students useful skills, such as computer operation, mechanics and making videos.

The BAE staff categorically reject the commonly held notion that private schools are expensive, when in fact the opposite is frequently true. The Baltimore City public schools’ per-pupil expenditure was $6,152 in school year 1996-1997.3 By contrast, tuition of BAE is only $1,800 a year. Because even this modest fee may be out of reach for most parents in the area, the tuition is often subsidized by Greater Grace, typically by 50 percent.

The academy’s teachers also react fiercely to the frequently heard, left-wing argument against parents’ being permitted to select which schools to send their children to: Poor people aren’t smart enough to choose wisely. Gough is dismissive: “Parents who love their kids know that shooting and drugs are not good for their kids, that teachers yelling is not good for their kids. They know what school is good and what isn’t.”

Ed Widgeon, an African-American member of the Advisory Committee for BAE, finds disturbing the NAACP protest that the answer to urban youth problems is simply more money for the public schools. “The black community can’t be dependent on ‘leaders.’ People can’t be advised by ‘black’ and ‘white.’ They must think through that.” Widgeon holds that some groups are driven by their pocketbooks and are using the children as political tools. Widgeon also notes that oftentimes he meets with opposition because of the “Christian” component of Christian education. His reply is, “We all want a common goal: law abiding, productive citizens. At BAE, we give that product.”

In the years ahead, BAE is looking to grow – not only in number of its students, but in the number of its campuses. Washington, D.C., is a candidate for possible expansion locations, in addition to other Baltimore sites.

“We look at the children through the finished work doctrine,” says Greater Grace Pastor Carl H. Stevens, that is, “the potential of who they are going to be in the future.”

Ms. Carver was the Calvert Institute’s summer 1998 intern.

End Notes

[Back] 1.This article is based upon an interview with Jacqui Gough, Kent Sutorius, Carl H. Stevens and Ed Widgeon, Baltimore Academy of Excellence, June 12, 1998.

[Back] 2.Brenda Buote, “Academy of Yearlong Success,” (Baltimore) Sun, August 6, 1997.

[Back] 3.Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE), Maryland School Performance Report, 1997: State and School Systems (Baltimore, Md.: MSDE, December 1997), p. 15.

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