By Keith Mills
One by one they walked across the stage in their blue caps and gowns, greeted by wild cheers from family and friends that made it sound more like a Jay-Z concert than a high school graduation.
Among the graduates was 21-year-old Marcus Stewart, a member of the school’s basketball team who finally earned his degree seven years after first entering ninth grade.
This wasn't a regular high school graduation. It was for the Youth in Transition School, a non-public school in Woodlawn that helps hundreds of area students to overcome serious behavioral issues and educational challenges.
"We are a level five non-public school," said the school’s founder and CEO, Herb Hoelter. "We accept referrals from 15 different school districts for kids who have emotional disturbances, special needs, learning disabilities, autism -- all of the very complicated problems are associated with kids who have issues."
Hoelter and Dr. Larry Miller founded the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives 32 years ago. Originally based out of Washington, D.C., the NCIA provides criminal justice services for both youths and adults. It also runs schools and programs all over the country and has a huge presence in the Baltimore area.
"In the late 1980s, we went all around the country developing programs for at-risk kids," said Hoelter. "In the late 1980s Maryland came to us and asked us to start some programs in the Baltimore area. We started residential programs for developmental disabilities and we now have 650 people working in the Baltimore area. We feel it is a wonderful situation."
Hoelter is considered one of the country's leading authorities on alternatives to prison and incarceration. He is also the former girls basketball coach at the Institute of Notre Dame in East Baltimore and the driving force behind the sports program at his Youth in Transition school.
"I am a big believer in letting sports become part of your life because the lessons you learn in sports can carry over forever,” Hoelter said. “When we first started we didn't have our own building. In 1999 we had the opportunity to build this school -- and I could never build a school without a gym. We started a basketball team, a volleyball team and we're going to start a wrestling program this summer. Sports are very important to everything we do here."
Hoelter grew up in western New York, went to the University of Buffalo and earned a master's degree in social work from Marywood University in Scranton, Pa. When he and Miller started the NCIA in 1977, Hoelter moved to Baltimore, where he immediately began coaching basketball -- first at Saint William of York Catholic School on Cooks Lane, then at Maryvale Prep, the Park School and eventually IND, where he took over for Karen Webster in 1998.
Seven years later, the Indians played for the IAAM A Conference championship against St. Frances. Led by Chandrea Jones, the Baltimore Sun's 2004-05 All-Metro Player of the Year, and Herb's daughter Katie, an unselfish and gifted point guard, the Indians finished 22-5. That ended a four-year run that saw the Indians win 78 games and lose just 30.
Jones went on to Syracuse, where she ended her four-year career last March. She led the Orange in scoring (16.6 points a game) the last two years and twice was named to the All-Big East team. Katie Hoelter went on to La Salle University in Philadelphia and has followed her dad's career path in human services, now living and working in Charlotte.
"Katie could have gone to any school in the area," said Hoelter. "She chose IND because it was an inner city school and we have a real commitment there. She made that call on her own." When Katie graduated from IND, Hoelter stepped down as coach -- but he never lost his passion for sports or its importance.
"Sports has been a big part of my life," said Hoelter. "The lessons I learned in sports we've been able to carry over to our business organization. How to build a team, how to get people working together. The school is an example of that."
So is the school's basketball team. The YIT Blue Devils are the new champions of the Metro Athletic League, a 13-team league in Baltimore, Washington and northern Virginia. Two months ago the Blue Devils defeated Rock Creek Academy, 51-22, to finish the season 14-1 and earn their first league championship.
"I think the most satisfying thing is to see how far they've come as a team," said coach Marlon Quillens. "Everything they've done in the past, they felt like they had to do on their own. They never really depended on anyone else to help them accomplish a goal. So to see them become a team is really rewarding."
Quillens graduated from Southwestern High School in 1989. He went to Pfeifer College in North Carolina, where he played basketball and received an education degree. He then played professionally in Costa Rica before returning to Baltimore to teach and coach. The last three years he assisted George Jackson with the boys’ team at Digital Harbor before joining the staff at YIT last October.
“When I first got here there was that, 'Well, what does he know about basketball?' attitude from the players,” Quillens said. “I had to actually get on the court and show them that I could play before they really started respecting what I could do. Once I proved to them I knew what I was doing, it was just a matter of getting them to come together."
"I have a lot of respect for him as a coach," said assistant coach James Taylor, a 1992 graduate of Frederick Douglass High in East Baltimore and a staff member of YIT for the last four years. "He did a great job. One of the things I told the kids was, 'Listen to him. He know what's he's talking about.' A lot of kids think they know basketball but they really don't. Coach Quillens knows the game.
"Hearing the kids in the hallway say they're going to lose and they won't be any good, well the team didn't pay any attention to that. They kept rising above all the negativity."
The Blue Devils feature an intriguing mix of former public school students from Washington, ranging in age from 16 to 21 years old, to players with autism and severe learning disabilities that tested Quillen’s and Taylor's resiliency as coaches. But as the season went on and the wins added up, the players began believing.
"I guess I started to think we could win it all when we started out 7-0," said 17-year-old Darrell Fitch, the team's starting shooting guard and backup point guard. "We practiced a lot and came together as a team. That's why we won."
Fitch came to YIT from Washington’s Theodore Roosevelt High, as did 18-year-old Markell Gordon, the team's sixth man and team leader.
"As the season progressed we all came together,” said Gordon. “Coach Quillens treated me like a man. He challenged me and was very patient with us. My teammates all helped me and we helped ourselves on the court and off the court."
"I changed a lot as the season went on," said 17-year-old Tracey Douglass, who came to YIT from Woodrow Wilson High in Washington. "When I first got here all I wanted to do was shoot. You passed me the ball and I shot it. But I realized I had to share the ball with the team for us to win."
Fitch, point guard Purnell Sims, leading rebounder Sam Ragsdale, 19-year-old Marquell Stokes and Tracey Douglass formed Quillen’s starting lineup. Gordon, Michael Smith, Stewart, Marcus Peters, 21-year-old Octavius Barnes, Robert Novicky, Leroy Van Horne and Kevin Thomas came off the bench.
Thomas is a 16-year-old freshman and one of the school's truly remarkable stories. He suffers from a disease known as Prader-Willi syndrome, a genetic disorder affecting one in every 10,000-15,000 newborns.
"It didn't matter if Kevin started or played just five minutes," said YIT athletic director Jennifer Meehan. "He always had a smile on his face, cheered louder than everyone and was always the first at practice. Through this experience he has gained confidence to know he can complete anything he starts."
Hoelter built the school years ago because of students like Thomas and Gordon, a residential student who has learned to control his temper and emotions to become a leader. It is students like them that keep Taylor coming back.
"It's just a passion for these kids," said Taylor, who also works with the school's autistic students and crisis team. "I had a nephew who was emotionally challenged and I was the only one he could relate to. When I found out they had a school like this and I could make a difference, I jumped right at it. I think I have a pretty good rapport with the kids."
"The biggest compliment I had this year," said Hoelter, "was when one of the referees from my high school days was doing one of our games. At halftime I went over to say hi and he says he's had our games all year and that we were the best-behaved team in the non-public school league. That our coaches had complete control of the kids and they were well-behaved and disciplined.
"Our purpose here is to teach these kids when they leave here to be productive citizens and hopefully have a vocation. We have six different vocations that we offer now and next we're going to have a Jiffy Lube replica automotive training center built to teach the kids how to work in the pits so they can get jobs and make a living on their own when they get out of here. Fortunately, we've been lucky. We’ve been blessed with great teachers and have a pretty good track record."
Now they have a pair of championship basketball trophies. The YIT team and coaches were honored at last Friday's graduation.
"They deserve it," said Quillens. "Some of the kids have really turned things around and it has been great to see. I could not have asked for more of a commitment than they gave us. They worked hard and the championship is the result of that hard work."