Je­suits of­fer free in­ner city preschool

Bal­ti­more fa­cil­ity ex­am­ple of faith

The Washington Times Daily - - METRO - BY TALIA RICH­MAN

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.

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