Image credit: The Academies at Frederick Douglass High School
Two years ago, fifteen-year-old Miquel Green put on an earnest face and prepared himself to stand the consternation of his older brother, Andrew. Miquel had decided to transfer from his current high school in Baltimore, Md., to Frederick Douglass High School, the Charm City school from which Andrew had graduated just five years before.
“He was mad,” recalls Miquel with a chuckle, yet he couldn’t fault his brother for the concern. During Andrew’s time at Frederick Douglass High, truancy, violence, and underachievement were rampant, and Andrew counted himself lucky to have graduated on time. But Miquel knew something that his brother didn’t—Frederick Douglass High had become a turnaround school.
A Storied Past and a Brighter Future
A 2008 HBO documentary, Hard Times at Douglass High, filmed in 2004-2005, declared, “America is in the midst of an educational crisis.” At the center of this struggle was a disorganized, academically dilapidated Frederick Douglass High, where less than 25 percent of students graduated and hopelessness pervaded the halls.
But the school had not always been this way.
In 1883, Frederick Douglass High, then called the Grammar School for Colored Children, opened its doors. By 1889, the institution became the first in Maryland—and only the third in the nation—to award high school diplomas to African Americans.
Born out of the “separate but equal” era, the school quickly established a reputation for educational excellence among African Americans, and built a powerful alumni base, including Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, jazz entertainment legend Cab Calloway, and “mother of the civil rights era” Lillie Mae Carroll Jackson.
But decades of financial and administrative struggles at the school and the challenges of a city dominated by urban poverty gradually disintegrated Frederick Douglass High’s academic foundation.
When the school’s current principal, Antonio Hurt, arrived from Georgia two years ago, the school was, in his words, “an education cemetery … people couldn’t take pride in our programs.”
Fast forward to today and Frederick Douglass High has reinvented itself. The entire school community has come together—the staff and students recommitting themselves to a learning environment based on the values of “pride, dignity, and excellence,” the school’s motto. The work is not yet done, but hopelessness has left the building.