Jesuits offer free inner city preschool
Baltimore facility example of faith
BALTIMORE | It seemed every morning the Rev. Bill Watters opened his newspaper, there was another story about the failing Baltimore schools. It was the early 1990s, and student test scores were abysmal, funding was inadequate, and school infrastructure was in disrepair.
Father Watters, a Jesuit priest, said the drive to foster education is part of his DNA. So he set out to open a school he believed would better serve Baltimore’s largely low-income, minority student population.
Then he started another school. And another.
“I really feel God has placed me here to make it possible to light a candle in the darkness,” said Father Watters, an assisting priest at Saint Ignatius Catholic Community in Mount Vernon. “There is a lot of darkness around, but I want to show there’s goodness in this world.”
His latest effort, the Loyola Early Learning Center, opened its doors to 18 2-year-olds on Sept. 12. It will eventually serve children ages 2 through pre-kindergarten.
Father Watters, 83, hopes it will follow the success seen at Saint Ignatius Loyola Academy, which has educated middle school-age boys since 1993, and Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, established in 2007. Both aim to provide disadvantaged students with a high-quality education. The high school boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate.
Tuition for students at the new center is being covered by a team of benefactors who each committed to fund full $12,500 scholarships annually for three years. The funding model is similar at the other two schools.
Another group of twelve donors — Father Watters calls them the Twelve Apostles — put up $250,000 each to get the early learning center up and running.
The building at the corner of St. Paul and Madison streets required $1.5 million in renovations. It once housed the Bell Telephone Co., and now is home to colorful classrooms filled with books, play structures and posters teaching the alphabet, colors and shapes.
“Father Watters has the vision to be able to look at the needs in the city and make institutions come to life to address those needs,” said John Ciccone, president of Saint Ignatius Loyola Academy.
Jacquelyn Madison took her son, August, to meet his new teacher before the grand opening. August ran around the lobby, a miniature cartoon backpack strapped to his back, and tossed a football with his older brother, Kolby, who just started fifth grade at Saint Ignatius.
Ms. Madison considers the opportunities for her boys to attend Jesuit schools free of charge “a blessing.” She’s a single mother who works as an EMT for the city health department. She was spending $235 weekly on day care for August.
She sees the education of her sons as a way to “change the cycle” of violence that touches the lives of many young black men in Baltimore.
Ms. Madison lost a cousin to gunfire two years ago. He had been the only consistent male figure in Kolby’s life, she said, which is a role the 10-year-old boy now must fill for his younger brother.
Kolby has learned to tie a tie since starting at the Jesuit academy in Federal Hill, Ms. Madison said, as the boy puffed his chest proudly beside her.
“I just want them to grow up to be good men,” she said. “I don’t want him to think the lifestyle of the streets is the only way.”
Every child enrolled at the early learning center is black and would qualify for free or reduced lunch. At Saint Ignatius 92 percent of students are black. Last year’s incoming class came from families with an average household income of $25,000.
Father Watters, who is white, said he is cognizant of the Jesuits’ painful connection to slavery. In 1838 priests at the Jesuit-founded Georgetown University sold 272 slaves to help pay off the university’s debts.