It boasts championship basketball teams, yet it has no gym of its own. It must draw its talent from the smallest student enrollment of any school in its league. At graduation, its students areas much as 50 points ahead on the SAT’s as measured against other comparable inner-city schools.
Classes are made up entirely of students living in inner-city areas, one third of them below the poverty level. Its admission policy is hardly selective; it admits just about any student who can afford the cost of admission ($2,900). Seventy percent of the students are non-Catholic. Up to three-quarters of the students come from one-parent households. Up to 10 percent of the students are teenage parents; yet the drop-out rate is consistently lower than the city public schools. Ninety percent of the students go on to college. Over a nine-year tracking period, 75 percent of the students finished college and 95 percent went on to post-secondary education.
This is the remarkable profile of a remarkable school: the 114- year-old St. Frances Academy. At 501 East Chase St., it is too many blocks the wrong side of the Belvedere (now condominium) Hotel, at Chase and Charles. Its home is a hardcore neighborhood in the shadow of the state penitentiary. Said to be the oldest African-American high school in America, St. Frances Academy receives no funds from the Catholic Archdiocese, and it is left to raise its funds on its own.
The school’s current profile is the work of Sister John Francis Schilling, the president and principal of the school. She does not think of the school’s record as anything unusual. “‘Our success,” Sister John Francis says, “is what we would expect from teachers and students who are dedicated to our particular teaching philosophy.
“That philosophy, is rooted in what the school believes is a need to focus on instilling students’ pride in their African-American heritage; in focusing on the importance of such basic values as attendance, doing one’s homework, maintaining disciplined study habits, and the building of self-esteem. Learning takes place in small classes, about 15 students on average, in a serious atmosphere. It’s clear that the teachers care very much about the students and that the students care very much about the teachers.”
Students are nurtured in a neighborhood of broken families, high unemployment and high crime.
“But when people ask where we are located,” Sister John Francis says with a slight twinkle, “I never say, ‘We are a block away from the prison.’ I say, ‘We’re a few blocks away from the Belvedere.’”