(Updated October 16, 2014) In 2006, a small group of dedicated educators began meeting on Saturdays with minority middle school-aged boys at Sojourner Douglass College in east Baltimore.
This small group was the beginnings of the Paul Robeson Academic International School of Excellence, or PRAISE, a Saturday college-readiness and manhood development program designed for a population often generalized as at-risk without respect to individual behaviors or achievements.
Now housed at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, PRAISE was founded by Dr. LaMarr Shields, who was inspired to do so by his work as a reader and pitch man to students of color for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Gates Millennium Scholars program. The Gates program provides full scholarships for the entire length of university study at any school of the recipient’s choosing.
“When I saw these smart brown boys from all over the country, from New York, to L.A., to Chicago, we . . . created a college readiness model, to prepare them for college,” Shields told the AFRO during a recent visit to PRAISE program. “But also about manhood—manhood development.”
PRAISE works to ensure that its students, consisting entirely of Black and Latino males, are prepared to succeed in college when they graduate high school.
“We don’t accept the bare minimum,” said Mary Missouri, director of PRAISE and formerly an assistant principal at St. Francis Academy for 14 years. “There’s no back row here.”
Academics are heavily emphasized, but so is developing a strong sense of self within the context of understanding of one’s history.
“We want to make sure that these young boys have instilled in them the values, principles that are necessary in order to navigate this world, even in the face of injustice, even in the face of people treating them as less than,” said Missouri. “They need to understand that that’s not what you need to subscribe to and that you need to elevate your own standards.”
In order to achieve this, PRAISE infuses its educational development programs with Afro-Caribbean perspectives, imparting not just academic skills, but also a broader cultural and historical awareness that is often lacking in Baltimore area public schools.
For Tyrek Wynn, currently a senior at Pikesville High School, it is that sense of self that has meant the most to him.
“The biggest impact for me from being in here would probably be getting more in tune with my culture, my past, my people I would say,” said Wynn. “Instead of just going about my business, actually learning about our journey so far through life, the things we’ve experienced.”
Kennedy Huddleston, now in his third year as an instructor with PRAISE after 15 years as a science and English teacher at St. Francis Academy, said getting the young men to appreciate that they are part of an intentional journey is central to PRAISE’s mission.
“A lot of them don’t even know that they’re walking a path, they think that life is happening, so our job is ‘no, no, no, really you’re actually walking a path,’ consciously or unconsciously,” Huddleston said. “So how you walk that path is either going to make it difficult, or going to make it easy.”
Like some other education based programs in Baltimore—LIFTT, or the Youth Resiliency Institute, for example—PRAISE also emphasizes parental involvement. While the only costs for the students is a small initial registration fee, parents are asked to support PRAISE’s work in ways other than financial, by attending eight once-a-month sessions that run for two hours each and are described by Shields as “very intense.”
“It’s not just about educating the child,” said Missouri, “we try to educate the family members as well. Give the parents tools in their tool boxes how to help their little Brown and Black boys navigate this society.”