St. Frances Academy sits squarely in the shadow of the Baltimore City Detention Center, and the irony is lost on no one.  With just over 200 high school students, mostly black and mostly poor, St. Frances can seem like the last chance for many.  Established in 1828, by a Haitian nun of the Oblate order, St. Frances has been educating the children of Baltimore African-Americans for nearly 200 years now, on a budget that sometimes seems little more than a wing and a prayer.

Founded as The Baltimore School For Colored Girls, the school’s original mission was to “teach the children of color to read the Bible” – an illegal act in the slave-state of Maryland. Its founder, Mother Mary Lange, is currently a candidate for sainthood in the Catholic Church, although at the time of the school’s founding, her efforts were not embraced among Catholic leadership, many of whom were slave owners themselves. St. Frances persevered, times changed, and the tiny East Baltimore school continued to meet a growing need. In the 1970s it went co-ed, and its role expanded to become a neighborhood gathering place, a community and health center.

Today, there are many success stories here.  Almost 100 percent of St. Frances graduates go on to college, despite a small sports program and no academic admission standard.  What is required — according to Sister John Francis Schilling, director of the school since 1993, who personally interviews every candidate — is a sincere desire to come, and that their parent or guardian promise to support them. Tuition is charged for nearly every student, although the school strives to accommodate families in difficult circumstances. With a purposefully small enrollment, and classes of less than 15 students, St. Frances is able to provide individual attention and, when needed, counseling to each of its students.

Among St. Frances’s notable sponsors are Camille Cosby, who in 2005, donated $2 million, which the school used to endow 16 scholarship chairs.  In three weeks, on April 20th, Drs. Bill and Camille Cosby will visit St. Frances to be honored at a fund-raising gala, organized to help the school continue its mission. Soledad O’Brien, popular CNN anchor, will also attend — on behalf of her mother Estella, a St. Frances graduate.

For tickets to the gala on April 20th, contact Melissa D’Adamo at St. Frances, or call 410-539-7030.