The southbound 85 bus closed its doors, and Corey watched as the familiar sights of Park Heights Avenue receded. The bus passed the dark bay windows of vacant rowhouses and the A-Z Food Market and Discount Liquor store — the corner he and his friends had occupied through many of the 535 afternoons that he had not been in a classroom. It took him in the opposite direction from the Checkers where he had learned to log into virtual courses on his phone without taking a break from ringing up Big Buford combo meals. After a transfer and a train ride, Corey approached a brick building where Rihanna blasted from the entrance.
“Mask over your face! Mask over your face! Welcome back,” Kevin James, a school resource officer, shouted over the heads of the teens surging past him in crimson Renaissance Academy polo shirts. When Corey approached, James embraced him. Then the Baltimore City School Police officer stepped back to assess the young man who was no longer quite so young as the last time he had seen him: A skinny 18-year-old, with mid-length braids, artfully torn jeans and a black face mask with the words “No Excusez.”
“You back?” James said. “How you doin’?”
“Good,” Corey replied, sliding past the police officer and through the Renaissance Academy metal detector. “I only got two credits left.”
“That’s nothing,” Jones called after him. “You got that.”
But did he? Like many of his classmates at Renaissance, a school of about 270 near Baltimore’s McCulloh Homes, Corey had found it hard to stay on track even before the pandemic. Over the many months that school buildings were closed during the worst disruption to public education in modern American history, his connection had only grown more tenuous.
More work now stood between him and his diploma than he realized. In fact, his chronic absences from his teachers’ computer screens had put him on a list of students in danger of dropping out after their prolonged struggles with virtual learning.
Hundreds of thousands of students across the country were similarly at risk. A McKinsey & Company report released in July estimated that between 617,000 and 1.2 million teens nationwide were more likely to drop out because of coronavirus-related school closures. In Miami and Chicago, in New York City and Detroit, school officials had fanned out over the summer to reestablish contact with some of those kids. And they had done so in Baltimore, where spikes in absenteeism were particularly acute among students with disabilities and those living in poverty. Almost a third of Renaissance Academy’s student body was on the same outreach list as Corey.
Parents in the suburbs had fretted over lost sports seasons or setbacks to AP coursework. But at Renaissance and other high schools serving large numbers of at-risk children, more fundamental things were at stake. A diploma meant a chance at a job that didn’t involve standing on a corner or over a deep fryer, that didn’t carry the threat of violent death, prison or poverty.
Renaissance Academy’s staff fought to pull every student off the streets and across the graduation stage, but when students were sent home, the streets began to pull them back.
“I can remember days thinking, ‘We’re going to lose a whole generation,’” Renaissance Academy Principal Tammatha Woodhouse said. “I think we’ve lost a lot of kids already, across the city, across the country, across the state. I’m wondering what those numbers are. And how do you get them back?”
The answer depended on what lay ahead for students like Corey, who walked down the hallway — past Woodhouse as she greeted her returning students amid the roar of industrial fans brought in to offset a broken air-conditioning system — and into his first-period algebra class. Doreen Andrews, the instructor, knew Corey well: He had failed her class once before.
She remained one of his favorite teachers.
“Corey, what’s your last name?”
“You know my last name,” he said.
“I forgot it,” she said.
“Get to be my age, and we’ll talk about it,” Andrews said.
“I remember your first name,” she added, bending over a form on her desk. “I’ll tell you that.”
Corey smiled. “Because I was a nuisance.”
For the first time in first period on the first day of school, Andrews laughed.
‘A struggle to raise my boys’
Inside her home on Park Heights Avenue, Robbie Byrd’s living room was a shrine to the academic achievements of her grandchildren. At its center was a wrought-iron display shelf devoted to what was, so far, their crowning achievement: Tyree Byrd’s high school diploma. She looked forward to the day when she would display a second diploma, this one bearing the name of Tyree’s younger brother, Corey.
He already appeared in framed photographs across her house, holding his graduation certificate from Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary and Middle School. She had taken in her grandson when he was 3 years old, after it became clear that neither her son — Corey’s father, absent for long stretches in prison on robbery and gun charges — nor his drug-addicted mother would provide him with something fit to be called a home.
But Ma, as Corey called her with quiet reverence, did. It was Ma who had carefully maintained their rented rowhouse as boards went up over the windows of other homes on the block, and Ma who collected and preserved Corey’s Pop Warner football trophies. She had raised a child who taped up the Kobe Bryant poster that still hung on his bedroom wall and played basketball with friends at the nearby playground that the neighborhood had nicknamed Candystripe.
Now that child was on the verge of manhood, a delicate scrollwork of tattoos down his forearms, his imagination captured by YoungBoy Never Broke Again — a 21-year-old rapper who like Corey had been raised by his grandma, and whose latest album was topping the charts even as he sat in jail awaiting trial on gun charges.
Corey had never been in that kind of trouble. (One of his tattoos is his grandmother’s name.) But Robbie knew from painful experience how easy it was for young men in West Baltimore to stray, and she no longer relished the idea of her grandson spending much time outside her walls.
“I don’t try to be too hard on him,” said Robbie, 62. “But once he’s in the house, he’s in the house, and I’m comfortable.”
There was another place where Robbie felt comfortable sending Corey, and that was to school. She had accepted the responsibility of raising Corey and Tyree, as well as Corey’s 10-year-old cousin, D’Andre, with her entire will fixed on a single goal: to see them graduate from high school and have a path away from West Baltimore’s corners. That goal sustained her through the bad days, when fighting got Corey kicked out of a prestigious high school program run by Bard College, or when D’Andre’s teachers complained about his obscene remarks.
“It’s been a struggle to raise my boys. I do the best I can. I don’t have time for me. But I just want them to get an education,” she said. “I don’t want them to fall through the cracks.”
Yet even this home — more stable than those of many of Corey’s classmates — was no substitute for the public school buildings that closed in the spring of 2020.
Corey had gamely accepted one of the 44,000 laptop computers distributed by the city, and Robbie dutifully roused him from bed on school days. But for Corey, whose repartee and readiness to chase distractions by turns charmed and exasperated his teachers, learning over a screen was an especially bad fit.
Some days he would sign in, leaving his camera and mic off, then roll back over in bed. Some days, especially after he had worked a closing shift at Checkers and arrived home after midnight, exhausted and covered in a film of kitchen grease, he wouldn’t even do that.
“See, with school, you stuck in there. You don’t have a choice,” Corey explained. “It’s easy enough when you sit down and do it. But the work kept piling up.”
It was the almost universal sentiment of Corey’s classmates at Renaissance Academy. For some of them, virtual learning amounted almost to a physical impossibility.
Zykiah Armstead, a Renaissance Academy student whose name was on the same outreach list as Corey’s, found it hard to establish a remote education routine as her family moved repeatedly between relatives’ houses during the pandemic. She now shared a home with 10 people, including her two children, born in 2020 and 2021.
“I gotta be face-to-face,” said Zykiah, 18. Yet she had fallen so far behind during the pandemic that she might not graduate from Renaissance until she is 21, leaving her unmotivated to return.
On the third day of school, when Zykiah slept in after staying up late with her babies, Corey and his friend Charles Johnson, 19, sat on a bench outside Renaissance Academy watching rain clouds move over the city. The day was hot and humid, and per school district policy, Renaissance had released its students early because of its glitchy air conditioners.
“I got a interview coming up Friday,” Charles said.
Corey had given up his job at Checkers, with its $11-an-hour paycheck, because his grandmother thought it was burning him out. His focus now was supposed to be school. He and Charles talked about their shared desire to become long-haul truckers, roaming far beyond the slice of West Baltimore where they had spent their lives. Corey wanted to travel the world, but even a state like Indiana sounded exotic.
He and Charles knew companies often favored candidates with high school diplomas for those jobs. And they knew they wanted no part of an industry that thrived around them: West Baltimore’s drug trade, where entry-level positions required no qualifications but were both dangerous and — despite what glamorized versions of street life portrayed — not especially lucrative.
“Making $50 a day standing on the corner,” Charles said. “And then you get shot.”
The young men sat side by side, staring at the ground.
“I like Renaissance,” Corey said after a moment. “Teachers here cool, for real.”
‘I’m gonna walk’
In his eulogy for Freddie Gray — the young Black man whose death from injuries he suffered in police custody in 2015 set off days of rioting in West Baltimore — Pastor Jamal Bryant invoked the desperation of growing up in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, “confined to a box” built by inequity and racism. When Bryant said Gray “had to feel at age 25 like the walls were closing in on him,” he was describing a future that could await some of the teens who walked the halls of Renaissance Academy.
Woodhouse, then principal of another high school, remembered the students who escorted her to her car the day the riots began. And she remembered her realization as smoke rose over West Baltimore that she was involved in “spiritual warfare” for those kids, who she believed deserved something better.
That was why the principal had been eager to reopen Renaissance Academy. The threat of covid-19 was evident to her and to her students’ families, who lived in some of the most virus-ravaged neighborhoods of Baltimore. But it was not the only threat that stalked those neighborhoods.
In a city with one of the nation’s highest murder rates, gun violence was just the most obvious way a young life could be derailed. Drug addiction, teen pregnancy and incarceration were a few others. Every one of Woodhouse’s students was considered economically disadvantaged by the state of Maryland, and almost all of them were Black. Even before the pandemic, fewer than half graduated, and the odds against them grew worse every day they were away from campus.
“I just could not fathom them continuing to be out of school,” Woodhouse said.
Now, as students were welcomed back into the building, there were new obstacles. Most conspicuous among them was the highly contagious delta variant, which had plunged the country’s least-vaccinated regions into their darkest days of the pandemic. Baltimore’s 60-percent citywide inoculation rate concealed pockets of vaccine resistance, and Renaissance Academy sat in a part of the city where fewer than 4 in 10 people had been immunized. Students largely complied with the district’s indoor mask mandate, but in the first weeks of school, many needed reminders from Nuriyah Byrd.
Byrd, a temporary worker on the school’s support staff who is not related to Corey, varied the tenor of her enforcement efforts in the central hallway.
“Mask over your nose.”
“Can you pull that up over your nose, sweetie?”
“Your face is beautiful. I just would prefer if it was underneath a mask.”
Corey had been scared away from the vaccines by misinformation on social media. And although his grandmother was vaccinated, he worried about taking the coronavirus home to her, making him more zealous in his precautions than most of his classmates. When Lee Kearney, his English teacher, allowed students to play songs from a “clean rap” YouTube channel while they worked on writing assignments, Corey addressed the class with an admonition.
“Y’all gotta use hand sanitizer, though, before you touch the computer,” he said, stepping up to Kearney’s laptop and selecting a less-than-clean YoungBoy video. “You feel me?”
Other challenges predated the pandemic. In 2015, Renaissance made headlines when a 17-year-old was stabbed to death in a biology class. Far more common in the first weeks of the new school year were the petty disruptions that could slow academic tasks to a crawl: the girl bloodied in a fight with her cousin in a technology class, or the boy kicked out of algebra for yelling at Andrews that she was tripping when she demanded his attention to a lesson on graphing elevation against time.
Corey sat at the back of math class during that episode, silently rolling a green rubber ball back and forth on his desk. He was rarely the most obvious troublemaker in a room but was easily distracted with cutting class, leaving school in the middle of the day, bantering with anyone who wandered into his line of sight. He made an inordinate number of trips to the bathroom and spent a good part of those trips meandering in the halls, peeking into other classes.
“I will put you on a time limit, Mr. Byrd,” health teacher George Garrison said as he wrote Corey a hall pass one day.
“What? Ain’t nobody else got a time limit.”
“And I’m going to tell you why,” Garrison continued. “Because, as your name implies, you like to fly.”
“Oh, you got jokes now?”
When Corey returned, more or less within his time limit, Garrison was frowning at his computer. The first weeks of school had been plagued by confusion over schedules and enrollment. Garrison now believed Corey might not actually be in his class.
“Corey, I’m going to petition to get you back,” he said.
“I ain’t gonna lie to you, bro, that’s dead.”
“I want you to walk across that stage. I want to see you do that dance.”
“I ain’t gonna dance,” Corey said. “But I’m gonna walk.”
‘The streets don’t love you’
Woodhouse marched into the waiting room of her office and fixed the tall young man standing there with a pitiless stare.
“You’ve got to have a mask on,” she said.
“My mask dirty,” the student offered.
“You should have washed it.”
She handed him a brand-new face covering like her own: Gray, with a Renaissance Academy logo screened in red across the front. A nearby school resource officer approached Woodhouse after the student left.
“Can I have one of those?”
“I gave him the last one,” the principal wearily replied.
It was the end of the fourth week of school and — the latest refusenik notwithstanding — Woodhouse was pleased with the level of coronavirus-related compliance from her students. The calls to pull masks over noses echoed less frequently down the halls, and there was some evidence to suggest the mandate was having its intended effect.
A month had now passed, and no returning students had tested positive for the virus. The situation at Renaissance mirrored an encouraging picture across Baltimore’s public school system, where just several hundred cases had been identified so far among nearly 88,000 students and staffers.
There was other good news. Average attendance was now hovering north of 60 percent, up from roughly 50 percent the first week of school and slightly higher than the school’s pre-pandemic rates. But not everyone was succeeding.
Zykiah, the young woman on the school’s list of at-risk students, had appeared for only four full days of the 19 that Renaissance had been in session. And she had just sent Woodhouse a text message saying she might withdraw.
Corey had been in school 15-and-a-half of those days. But this Thursday — the last day before a long weekend for students — was not one of them.
It worried Woodhouse, who understood how much Corey’s grandmother was rooting for him, and who remembered him showing up for class almost every day before the pandemic. It worried Kearney, Corey’s English teacher, who knew that the jocular teen he had met for the first time four weeks ago wasn’t learning much about “The Crucible” amid his repeated absences.
And it worried Douglas Flowers, the school’s social and emotional learning specialist. But it did not surprise him.
Flowers, a muscular 58-year-old whose focus on Renaissance students’ behavioral problems put his job description somewhere between therapist and bouncer, hoped that many of his teens could get themselves back on track. But he had less hope for some than for others.
The age limit for Maryland public high school students is 21, and the pandemic hiatus had placed many at risk of aging out of the system. But Flowers knew that less-formal deadlines also weighed on his students, whose lives were shaped not just by routines inside the school but routines outside it.
Sitting in the Wholeness Room — a sanctuary of pear-green seat cushions and teal beanbag chairs where misbehaving kids were brought to vent and simmer down — he pointed through a window over the red-brick topography of West Baltimore.
“If you don’t graduate, that’s your best bet,” he said. “The streets don’t love you. And not everyone is street material.”
On those streets, a thunderstorm had given way to a glorious fall afternoon, and the corners were bustling with young men who were not at work and not at school. They were outside the CJ Tobacco and Grocery on West North Avenue, the Harlem Mini Mart on Pennsylvania.
And they were outside the A-Z Food Market and Discount Liquor on Park Heights Avenue, where Corey Byrd stood, a half-smoked cigarillo pinched between his thumb and forefinger.
Hearing rain on his roof in the morning, he had chosen to sleep in, and by the time he woke up, he figured there wasn’t much point in heading to school. Instead, Corey emerged late from Ma’s house, joining a world that he knew well and that wordlessly accepted his presence.
Now, in the late September sunlight, Corey laughed, his arm around a young woman. He greeted an uncle entering the A-Z. He lit the Newport of an older man sitting on the stoop of one of the vacants. Asked how he was, he would reply: “Coolin’, bro.”
He didn’t talk about what it felt like to be an 18-year-old sitting in a ninth-grade math class, or about the father who was briefly home for Thanksgiving last year before being sent back to prison. And though his eyes sometimes flickered outward, he didn’t talk about the invisible walls of his city, threatening to close in.
Story editing by Lynda Robinson, photo editing by Mark Miller, design by Twila Waddy.