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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

Catalysts of Change

Four years after the Baltimore Scholars Program was launched at Hopkins, the first class of students is poised to graduate—and a new era of "town and gown" relations has begun.

illustration by Randy Lyhus

T

he greatest walls we build consist not of brick and mortar, but of belief and mind. The impermeability of these psychic barriers is undeniable. Take the 130-acre Homewood campus. On a map of Baltimore City, it would appear impossible to miss: an oasis of verdant green at the city's epicenter.

And yet for 21-year-old Jessical Turral and many of her childhood friends, the Hopkins they knew growing up in Baltimore might as well have been a black hole, for it cast no light toward their struggling neighborhoods. For all intents and purposes, as students of the beleaguered Baltimore City public schools, they felt ignored by Hopkins. For a generation, the university had essentially stopped recruiting in the city. In response, or perhaps just civic self-defense, that generation turned a blind eye toward Homewood and its extended parts, seeing the university not as a place of opportunity but an institution of opportunism. "A lot of my friends live in a part of the community that they feel Hopkins has stolen by buying people out and building," says Turral. "We didn't want to go there. We didn't feel welcome there."

That Turral is saying this as a Hopkins senior is enough to let you know that something has changed for the better. That she can also add, with complete sincerity, "Hopkins has helped me to appreciate and love my city; I didn't do that before," suggests a radical shift in attitude, the type of epiphany that can replace suspicion with hope, and perhaps rejuvenate the relationship a school has with its neighbors.

If so, Turral and 14 of her peers may well be seen in time as the catalysts of that change. For in May, they will become the first graduating class of Baltimore Scholars. And they're being tasked with a mission far greater than just graduating.

They're being asked to help the walls come tumbling down.

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It wasn't so long ago that Baltimoreans were as populous at Homewood as black-eyed Susans at the Preakness. Through the 1970s, the campus teemed with Charm City denizens, many of them graduates of the local public schools. "When I went to Hopkins as an undergraduate—I grew up here—many of the students came from Baltimore," says political science professor emeritus Matthew Crenson, who attended City College (high school) in the 1960s. "I went to Hopkins on a partial scholarship. Then it was very common."

A confluence of factors would begin to shift the undergraduate demographic. In the wake of the 1968 riots after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, which decimated downtown, the city's public school system, in Crenson's words, "disintegrated." The situation got worse with each ensuing decade, as graduation rates plummeted. By the 1990s the rate was below 50 percent and dropping precipitously.

At the same time, as with many renowned urban institutions, Johns Hopkins was looking to build its global reputation. That meant tapping an undergraduate student body from across the country, if not the world. As a result, "We were sort of in Baltimore, but not of it," says Crenson. "We conceived ourselves, with some justification, as a national or international university. We stopped recruiting locally. There was just no connection anymore."

That's putting it mildly. By the turn of the millennium, Johns Hopkins was averaging roughly two city school graduates per entering class of freshmen. John Latting, dean of undergraduate admissions, had just arrived on campus from Caltech in 2001. He parsed the number and was shocked.

"I looked at the data and I was just really surprised, coming from the outside and seeing that no one from the city was coming here," recalls Latting. "Why was that? That wasn't good. Everyone agreed it wasn't good, but they didn't know what to do."

Latting did. While financial aid had always been available to city students who qualified for Hopkins, it never had been quantified into a directed program. "It wasn't 'we want YOU!' That's what I sensed from the community, that Hopkins hadn't projected the feeling of 'we want you here,'" he says.

Latting conceptualized what eventually became the Baltimore Scholars Program: an offer of a full tuition scholarship for any city public school graduate who meets the same academic standards as the rest of the Hopkins applicant pool. That it was a scholarship based on merit was vital; anything less would have smacked of quotas and tokenism, unpalatable to both the administrators Latting first approached and the city school system whose students stood to benefit. "The administration thought, 'Oh great idea, we really like it, but these kids have to succeed here. Is that going to happen?'" remembers Latting. "So we walked out of our initial meeting with some homework, to do research to suggest that either they would or wouldn't succeed."

But Latting's research quickly hit a roadblock. "We couldn't use the track record of students coming here from city schools because there wasn't really one. So we studied how students at Hopkins did who came from similar kinds of schools elsewhere in the country: urban, public, minority high schools in Chicago, L.A., Atlanta, Houston, New York, Boston...we pulled them all together and looked at how they had done here. They'd done well. I think the eye-opener, at least from the leadership's standpoint was, 'Wow, there's every reason to think that, as long as they go through the same admissions process everybody else does, [they] can come from schools like that and do perfectly fine at Hopkins.'"

Latting's proposal caught fire; though it was just one of the 30 plus initiatives to come out of the 2003 CUE (Commission on Undergraduate Education) report chaired by then vice provost for academic affairs Paula Burger, its case was so compelling that it was fast-tracked to fruition. "Higher education is normally a slow-moving machine," says Bill Smedick, a 20-year Hopkins veteran who is special assistant to the dean of student life. "But in my experience I never saw a program gain the kind of traction this one did in such a short amount of time."

Within a year, the Baltimore Scholars Program had been green-lighted. It was envisioned as a keystone opportunity for both the scholars and the school, where graduates would hopefully go back into the city's middle schools as role models and proselytize for higher education and Hopkins (either was deemed acceptable), and, on the upstream side, go on to become highly visible civic, political, and business leaders in their hometown. Hopkins was trying to establish a positive causal loop, both for the university's own domestic reputation and the city's students it now fervently desired to serve.

The mechanism had been built. The question was: Would anybody come?

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Four years later, the answer to that query is clear: Not only have the Baltimore Scholars arrived, they've thrived. Sixty-nine scholars are on campus, with more than 60 percent coming from minority backgrounds. One-third are the first members of their families to attend college. And of that first class of freshmen, 15 are scheduled to graduate on time in May. Applications from Baltimore high school students numbered 126 this year, more than double the number who applied the year before the program began. "I could give you a list of colleges where these kids could have gone if they'd passed us up, and you'd be impressed," says Jameel Freeman, associate director for the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. "Princeton, Duke, Case Western, Dartmouth, Columbia, MIT...these kids are getting into strong schools across the country."

The financial commitment that Johns Hopkins is making to the Baltimore Scholars—more than $3 million annually—is also being noticed in the public high schools generating these students. "We want to give our students options, to improve their opportunity to go to great institutions," says Andres Alonso, CEO of the Baltimore City Public Schools. "This is a program that we want to support and encourage."

Barney J. Wilson, director and principal of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute (Poly), says the program "puts Hopkins at the top of the list" for skilled and gifted students wanting to go to a top school. And that pipeline Hopkins was hoping for? Wilson sees it beginning to flow. He himself attended Poly in the 1970s. "When I was making my decision to go to college, I looked at Poly's [student] leaders at that time and asked 'Where did they go?' Most went to Carnegie Mellon, and that's why I went there," he recalls. "I wanted to go where the legacy was."

Through the Baltimore Scholars, Wilson says Johns Hopkins is re-establishing the link it had to Poly way back when. "Students respect [the Scholars] for their academic prowess," he says. "For a Poly sophomore or junior who is undecided, the fact that Amy Peyrot is at Hopkins, Jasmine Jones and Britni Lonesome are there, means a lot to the students. When Jasmine Jones got the word, we celebrated in her church. It was just fabulous. She's from the Park Heights community. Those kinds of things lift a whole community, for families who can't afford college."

Baltimore Schools CEO Alonso, who says the legacy concept is critical, draws on his own academic experience as an example. "It's about being part of a flow with other kids," he says. "I went from an inner city high school to Columbia University along with my best friend. I'm not exactly sure I would have ended up at Columbia if I hadn't had somebody there with me. In the case of students from Poly or City, there may be a greater likelihood of the student finding support in that kind of pipeline."

Baltimore Scholar Rachel Pierson agrees. The Poly grad says the jump from high school to Hopkins "wasn't a difficult transition," thanks to the familiar faces from Poly she encountered. "I lived across the hall from Amy Peyrot, and Ryan Harrison and another friend from Poly were all living together," she recalls.

From an administrative viewpoint, the Baltimore Scholars Program is helping Hopkins re-establish its community presence. "You can drop below a threshold where you lose an essential connection. I think we had dropped below that threshold," admits Adam Falk, James B. Knapp Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. "This program is helping to reposition us in a much more appropriate place with respect to the [city makeup] of our student body."

Still, challenges remain. On the funding side, Falk notes that to run in perpetuity, the program needs about $50 million in endowment, most of which has not been raised. Baltimore Scholars faculty advisor Matthew Crenson says alumni reunions are now being specifically targeted for Baltimore Scholars gifts.

There's also a concerted effort to make city students more comfortable and accepted as peers on campus. Some Baltimore Scholars feel there's a stigma attached to their award. Says one, "A lot of people at Hopkins think, 'Oh, you're a Baltimore Scholar; dag, I wish I had gone to high school in Baltimore so I could get a free ride here.' They don't realize you have valedictorians, people who had perfect scores on the SAT, people who've done research since middle school. We are smart, we worked just as hard, if not harder, because we had a lot less than many people who come to Hopkins have."

Administrators, though noting that such attitudes appear to be diminishing as the program becomes more established, are working to raise the profile of Baltimore Scholars on campus. Smedick is actively recruiting scholars for leadership programs at Homewood, and worked with Jessica Turral and other Baltimore Scholars to run a "Welcome to Baltimore Fair" for incoming freshmen. The event, which drew several hundred students, featured civic and corporate leaders and numerous area groups who were looking for student volunteers. For Turral, who wants to create a non-profit in Baltimore to offer legal assistance and resources to high school students with incarcerated parents, the fair was a way to show the pride her fellow Scholars have in both their city and themselves.

"We want people to respect us and respect our city," she says. "Most of us want to stay here. This is where our home is, where our brothers and sisters are. They'll be in middle school, high school, and college one day," she says. "If they choose Hopkins, we want the Baltimore Scholars to be like a Rhodes Scholar, a Fulbright Scholar, something that people look at and say 'Oh my God, you're a Baltimore Scholar? That's a big deal.'"

Hopkins is betting big bucks that she's right.

 

Mat Edelson is a Baltimore freelancer and frequent contributor to Arts & Sciences Magazine.

 

 

 

Baltimore Scholar Profiles

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Illustration © Randy Lyhus

By the Numbers
The Baltimore Scholars Program

A quick peek at applicants for the Baltimore
Scholars Program shows some interesting trends:

  • In 2004, the year prior to the start of the Baltimore Scholars Program, 46 students from 11 city high schools applied to Johns Hopkins. Students from three schools—Baltimore City College, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, and Western High School—were admitted that year.
  • Since then, 626 students (an average of 125 per year) have applied for admission from 29 city high schools; students from nine schools have been admitted as Baltimore Scholars.
  • City and Poly account for the largest number of admittances and enrollees, but Baltimore Scholars have also been selected from the Academy for College and Career Exploration, Baltimore School for the Arts, Digital Harbor High School, Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, and Western High School.