Hope in the Unseen

Published: May 25, 2008
A portrait of hope was on every face during a lottery to choose the first 80 students, drawn from disadvantaged districts, who will attend a new public boarding school.

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Every once in a while as a journalist you see a scene that grips you and will not let go, a scene that is at once so uplifting and so cruel it’s difficult to even convey in words. I saw such a scene last weekend at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland in Baltimore. It was actually a lottery, but no ordinary lottery. The winners didn’t win cash, but a ticket to a better life. The losers left with their hopes and lottery tickets crumpled.

The event was a lottery to choose the first 80 students who will attend a new public boarding school — the SEED School of Maryland — based in Baltimore. I went along because my wife is on the SEED Foundation board. The foundation opened its first school 10 years ago in Washington, D.C., as the nation’s first college-prep, public, urban boarding school. Baltimore is its second campus. The vast majority of students are African-American, drawn from the most disadvantaged and violent school districts.

SEED Maryland was admitting boys and girls beginning in sixth grade. They will live in a dormitory — insulated from the turmoil of their neighborhoods. In Washington, nearly all SEED graduates have gone on to four-year colleges, including Princeton and Georgetown.

Because its schools are financed by both private and public funds, SEED can offer this once-in-a-lifetime, small-class-size, prep-school education for free, but it can’t cherry-pick its students. It has to be open to anyone who applies. The problem is that too many people apply, so it has to choose them by public lottery. SEED Maryland got more than 300 applications for 80 places.

The families all crowded into the Notre Dame auditorium, clutching their lottery numbers like rosaries. On stage, there were two of those cages they use in church-sponsored bingo games. Each ping-pong ball bore the lottery number of a student applicant. One by one, a lottery volunteer would crank the bingo cage, a ping-pong ball would roll out, the number would be read and someone in the audience would shriek with joy, while everyone else slumped just a little bit lower. One fewer place left ...

It was impossible to watch all those balls tumbling around inside the cage and not see them as the people in that room tumbling around inside, waiting to see who would be the lucky one to slide out and be blessed. No wonder a portrait of hope and anxiety was on every face.

“I am so hopeful about the school and just so overwhelmingly anxious about what happens to the students who don’t get in,” said Dawn Lewis, the head of the SEED Maryland school. “During the six or seven months of recruiting, we heard all the stories of all the problems these kids are confronting in their schools, and each time [parents] would tell us, ‘This kind of school is the answer — the thing this child needs to be successful.’ When we were completing the applications, we received so many letters from guidance counselors and teachers and principals and even pastors saying, ‘Please, just exempt this kid from the lottery — because without this, there is no chance for this kid, there may not be another opportunity.’ ”

If you think that parents from the worst inner-city neighborhoods don’t aspire for something better for their kids, a lottery like this will dispel that illusion real fast.

Ms. Lewis said she’s seen people on crack walking their kids to school. “We had parents who came into our office who were clearly strung out,” she added. “They could not read or write, but they got themselves there and said, ‘I need help on this application’ for their son or daughter. Families do want the best for their children. If they have a chance, they don’t want their kids to inherit their problems. ... These aspirations are so underserved.”

Ms. Lewis said that she and her colleagues would meet with parents begging to get their kids in, help them fill out the applications and then, after the parents left, go into their offices, shut the door and cry.

Tony Cherry’s son Noah, an 11-year-old from Baltimore County, was one of the lucky ones whose number got pulled. “His teacher said if he got picked they’re going to have a party for him,” said Mr. Cherry. “This is a good opportunity. It’s going to give him a chance. ... Wish they could take all of them.”

Not everyone selected was in attendance, said Carol Beck, SEED’s director of new schools development. So, on Monday SEED notified those who had won. “We called one school counselor the next day and told her that so-and-so was chosen,” said Ms. Beck, “and she said: ‘Thank you. You have just saved this child’s life.’ ”

There are so many good reasons to finish our nation-building in Iraq and resume our nation-building in America, but none more than this: There’s something wrong when so much of an American child’s future is riding on the bounce of a ping-pong ball.

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