[Baltimore Sun] After a contentious renewal process, Edwin Avent wants to make Baltimore Collegiate flourish

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Edwin Avent goes to school every day in a suit and carrying a briefcase, a uniform partially reflected back to him in the neatly dressed students he oversees at the Baltimore Collegiate School for Boys. As Avent navigates the school halls, encouraging the students to straighten their ties and pull their pants up, he’s met with high, boyish voices greeting him as “Mr. CEO.” 

Avent hopes holding that title will inspire dreams for the elementary and middle school students attending the all-boys fourth through eighth grade charter school that nearly shuttered last February

A year later, Avent says the school — nestled in the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello neighborhood — has turned things around and is able to offer an education focused on college readiness that also teaches students “soft skills,” like public speaking and how to carry themselves, that can set them up for success. 

“We built a school that can actually impact the lives of young, African American males,” Avent, 61, said. “Nobody in this building is supposed to have low expectations of our boys.” 

Baltimore Collegiate’s student body, which currently sits at 284 students — below the school’s 480-student cap — is mostly Black, Avent said. And the school boasts a higher than average number of Black men on staff to highlight the importance of positive representation. Of the school’s 22 teachers, 18 are Black and eight are Black men. 

Comparatively, according to Baltimore City Public Schools spokesperson Sherry Christian, 11.5% of the city system’s 5,104 teachers are Black men. Last year, the state’s Department of Education said just 4% of the public teacher workforce was made up of Black men to serve a student body that is 17% Black. 

“Having role models that value education, that value hard work, that also demonstrate love and compassion, I think is valuable for young boys. We get to inspire them in ways that other people might not. We have total empathy for them because they were us,” Avent said. “We’re guys that we’re hoping our little boys would look up to and say, ‘One day, I want to be like Mr. Such and such.’” 

But leading Baltimore Collegiate is not without its challenges, which came to a head during the school’s operator renewal process last February. 

Avent is the CEO of Five Smooth Stones Foundation, the operator and charter holder of Baltimore Collegiate. He formally assumed the position in July 2022 but became the acting CEO in December 2021 following about four years as chair of the foundation’s Board of Trustees. 

Baltimore Collegiate was founded in 2015 by Jack Pannell, who has since left Baltimore to open Trinity Arch Preparatory School for Boys in Phoenix, Arizona. Pannell declined to comment for this story but calls himself a “school choice advocate” on X, formerly known as Twitter.

According to the Baltimore City Public Schools website, charter schools are run by outside entities and enjoy more independence than other public schools. There are currently 31 charter schools in the city.

Charter schools submit applications to continue operating that are reviewed by the Charter and Operator-led Schools Advisory Board, which advises school system CEO Sonja Santelises on renewal recommendations. Santelises presents her recommendations at a public meeting of the board of school commissioners, which ultimately decides the fates of charters.

The meeting on Baltimore Collegiate’s charter came after the school had been placed on probation due to mismanagement concerns; there were issues related to grant management, personnel qualifications and the delivery of services to students with disabilities. The school said it addressed those concerns, taking steps that included Panell’s departure and hiring a new principal with more experience.

The board voted unanimously to extend Baltimore Collegiate’s charter for another three years in 2023. But the victory came with conditions, including requiring hiring additional staff “knowledgeable in K12 education and requirements for public and charter schools in Maryland” and showing improvement in compliance with special education requirements. 

Avent said the school is meeting those conditions and has taken steps such as hiring a new head of special education and a new operations manager.

“Some of the things that were pointed out during the renewal were things I definitely believe that came out of struggling through the pandemic,” Avent said. “But I think [they were] things that we have all worked very, very diligently here to get in order.”

Santelises did not return a request for comment.

Baltimore City Councilwoman Odette Ramos, who represents the neighborhood where Baltimore Collegiate is, supported the school last year. She was spurred to action after a meeting the school held on its charter renewal process. 

“This was a gymnasium that was full of people from the community — but mostly parents,” Ramos said. “I just knew then that it was very important to fight for the school.” 

While she’s concerned about this year’s low enrollment numbers, Ramos said she thinks the school will bounce back. 

In the future, Avent hopes to expand the school’s reach to include grades down to pre-kindergarten. He wants to ensure his students are reading at or above grade level by kindergarten. But expanding the school’s offerings is a “dream deferred,” Avent said, until the school proves to Baltimore City that its educational model is working.

Yet Baltimore Collegiate is also a dream realized for Avent, who said he has “always tried to give voice to communities of color.”

Born in Washington, Pennsylvania, and raised in Philadelphia, Avent moved to Baltimore in 1985 after studying policy analysis and management at Cornell University. A serial entrepreneur, Avent has run several businesses and media publications. He once launched a line of condoms and a “Protect the Blood” HIV prevention campaign.

Avent advises a mentorship and scholarship group he helped launch in the 1990s called Black Professional Men, with a mission to “ensure the future of the African American male.” 

Del. N. Scott Phillips, a Democrat who represents Baltimore County, helped start Black Professional Men. When asked about Avent, he immediately said “that’s my guy,” adding that Avent has never wavered in his lifelong commitment to supporting Black boys and men. 

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Phillips, who said he has visited Baltimore Collegiate several times, called the school a “jewel.” 

“The way that they approach teaching African American males is definitely culturally sensitive,” Phillips said. “It just instills kind of this idea of pride, of teamwork.” 

Avent has been married to his wife, Tracey, for 22 years. The couple, who live in Ellicott City, have two sons, one at Towson University and the other in high school. Avent said both are honor roll students and Boy Scouts. His sons’ successes are partially what drives Avent: He wants the boys in his Baltimore school to have the same opportunities his sons did.

“That’s my whole driving force, is like, ‘How can we change the circumstances of the community?’” Avent said. “And I believe at the heart of them is education and opportunity.”

This article is part of our Newsmaker series, which profiles notable people in the Baltimore region who are having an impact in our diverse communities. If you’d like to suggest someone who should be profiled, please send their name and a short description of what they are doing to make a difference to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Editor Kamau High at [email protected].

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