What if you took junior high school–aged boys, rated as “high risk” in their low-income, high-crime urban neighborhoods, and plopped them down in a low-enrollment high-quality school in rural Africa? That’s the premise behind the Baraka School, a project put together in Kenya, East Africa, by American volunteers and foundations for early-teen boys from Baltimore, Md. Why Kenya? Besides being less expensive than a lot of places, it is a place where “boys can live the lives of boys,” spokesmen say. The kids, instead of vegetating in front of video games, can swim in natural streams, terrify each other with pet reptiles and watch real elephants parade through real forests.
A year in the lives of one group from Baltimore is chronicled in The Boys of Baraka, a critically acclaimed documentary by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady that played briefly in theaters in 2005. What happened to them? Mostly, they thrived. As portrayed in the movie, they arrive at the mostly white-run school jet-lagged, homesick and shocked by the prospect of an academic year without Game Boys, let alone reliable electricity. But they adjust. Their tough, defensive street attitudes slowly melt. They take on a new excitement about learning, teamwork and the vast dimensions of true manhood in a world beyond the ’hood back home.
“This school is very strict!” says Richard, an aspiring preacher. “You fail one class, you’re going back. You know what? I’m going to keep on trying until I can’t try no more. Some people give up but this is the only chance I got!”
Another boy’s mother is arrested while he is in Kenya. His grandparents keep the news from him. He arrived street-hard, but eventually is so transformed that, back home, he earns the highest score in all of Maryland on a state math test and gains admission to Baltimore’s most competitive high school.
But the Baraka School’s story ends sadly. Terrorist uprisings in Kenya force Baraka to close in the summer of 2003 before the boys featured in the film can begin their second year. Their parents are distraught and outraged. Their sons’ performance has blossomed from mediocre to outstanding. Now, as one mom says, “If you send them to Baltimore, you’re sending them to jail.”
“It’s a war zone here,” one father argues with a Baraka representative. “They’re more likely to be killed over here than over there.”
During its seven years of operation, the program served about 95 boys. Most arrived at the school three to four grade levels behind. So far, a Baltimore Sun follow-up found that in March their graduation rate exceeded that of their non-Baraka peers. Of those who could be located, eight alumni went to college; two joined the Navy; one joined the Army; one spent time in prison.
The Baraka project teaches something critical about the impact of environment on learning and behavior. No kid should have to leave his home, family and country to get an education free of shots fired in the night and police helicopters overhead. But, as this film shows, the change could do a lot of kids a lot of good. And there’s another, more controversial lesson the Baraka story offers: a powerful argument for more school choice, even if that means vouchers for private schools. The earnest parents in this movie, mostly moms and grandparents fighting hard to get their kids a better chance at life, illustrate why polls show growing support for private school–vouchers among African-American parents, so long as they do not take money from the public schools.
Housing vouchers have offered similar help to a fortunate few. One now-famous example emerged out of a class action racial discrimination lawsuit filed 40 years ago by Dorothy Gautreaux and three other Chicago public housing residents. Thanks to a Supreme Court ruling in their favor, more than 6,000 poor Black Chicago families have moved out of densely concentrated Black neighborhoods and integrated into mostly white suburban neighborhoods with the help of Section 8 federal housing vouchers. The result mostly has been a win-win all around. Studies by the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University found, in the program’s first two decades, that at least children’s attitudes toward school improved in their new neighborhoods. Their grades did not suffer, and they were more likely than their city counterparts to graduate from high school, get good jobs and enroll in four-year colleges.
Environment matters. Responsible parents often do a better job than government agencies of deciding what schools and neighborhoods are best for their kids. They deserve a chance to show it.
Clarence Page, Chicago Tribune columnist and editorial board member, is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner.
By Clarence Page