BALTIMORE – The East Baltimore Community School was designed to be a neighborhood school, but earning widespread community support took a while, the city schools chief executive said.
Andres Alonso, in his third year as head of Baltimore’s public schools, said there was a lot of tension — and not much support — in the community during the school’s planning stages. But when organizers reached out to neighborhood residents, asked for their input and considered their suggestions, he said, the effort paid off.
“It was the ongoing conversation with community that ultimately generated the support for the school, and I think the support has been there and remains there,” Alonso said.
Now, many parents — as they hug their children good-bye each morning at the school steps, or open the car door and call, “Have a good day” — say they’re pleased with the smaller classes, the teachers, and the extracurricular activities they’ve seen at the new school.
“I’m impressed with the first year, the after-school programs, the 100 Book Challenge,” said Shanelle Young, who has a first-grade pupil at the school. “They’ve been doing a lot to push the kids along, everything they said they’d do.”
Young, like many parents, doesn’t have much extra time to spend at the school, but she has attended one meeting there. Cathy Miles, the East Baltimore Community School principal, said attendance at these parent meetings has dropped from 25-50 people before the school year started to about 10 at a budget forum in early April.
But neighborhood residents did participate in the focus groups that helped to plan the school, said Nicole Johnson, the director of ELEV8 Baltimore, a program that aims to ease the transition from middle grades to high school through after-school activities. East Baltimore residents wanted to be sure that the school would be for the neighborhood, not only for children of Johns Hopkins medical employees.
East Baltimore Development Inc. initially proposed building a charter school that would be the cornerstone of the 88-acre redevelopment project just north of the Johns Hopkins medical campus. But EBDI modified its original proposal to create instead a contract school — which is more like a neighborhood school — within city schools.
By law, charter schools must grant admissions by lottery if they are overenrolled; students anywhere in the city can attend any city charter school.
But contract schools can give first priority to certain groups. At the East Baltimore Community School, that means current and former neighborhood residents.
“That was a very important condition for East Baltimore Community School and its relationship with the community,” Johnson said.
Community focus groups helped choose the curriculum. They settled on the expeditionary learning model, Johnson said. This model — characterized by hands-on investigations and classroom presentations of the conclusions — quickly won Alonso’s support.
“It’s about engaging kids,” he said. “We need to increase the number of places in the system where kids are being taught through models that go beyond simply textbooks.”
In the fall, pupils used the surrounding neighborhood for study, focusing on the guiding question, “How do communities change?” The fifth grade researched the types of people who live nearby and the effects of demolition on an area, said Cynite Cooke, who teaches fifth-grade math and science.
This spring, they will look into the Jones Falls watershed, answering the question: “How do humans impact the water quality of the Jones Falls watershed?” At least two field trips will allow students to observe, research and experiment at the watershed.
“They’re excited about getting their hands dirty,” Cooke said.
Jerry Gibson, a member of the school’s advisory team, said he appreciates the chance to discuss the school’s budget and dress code. But even parents who are not on the advisory team are involved at the school, he said, and many attend parent meetings “so they can keep up with the changes that are coming each season.”
Jamila Siddiqui, who teaches first grade, said her pupils’ parents ask what they can do at home to help their children learn, and they offer to bring classroom supplies or repair furniture. Families crowded into the school’s cafeteria for special evening programs that explained to parents what they can do to improve their children’s reading and math skills.
In the fifth grade, parents are important in controlling and improving behavior at school, said Rosalind Fleming, a fifth-grade teacher. A phone call home — for some of her pupils — eliminates disrespectful or disruptive behavior. One mother even came to school with her child for a day, and “the silence was amazing,” Fleming said.
Cooperation between parents and teachers is critical for children’s success at school, Johnson said.
“As long as the child knows that parent is keeping in touch with the teacher … that provides some level of encouragement,” Johnson said. “They want to know there are caring adults looking out for them.”
Carol Queen said her son’s teacher e-mails her almost daily and calls each week with updates on her son’s behavior and academic progress. A lower student-to-teacher ratio allows the staff to put together programs — like the after-school yoga class that has helped with her son’s discipline — that might not work in larger schools, said Queen, who does not live in the neighborhood.
Shiran Samuels, the mother of a first-grade pupil, said the teachers and staff “really, really try to encourage parents to participate” even if it’s an uncle, they try to get people to participate.
“The more the parents are involved, it helps the kids get involved and see that it’s not just a learning experience.”
In addition to parents and the faculty, six Experience Corps members — part of an AmeriCorps program for senior citizens — spend about 15 hours per week assisting teachers and helping students with reading and math, Marion Carter, the team leader, said.
“With these kids today, it’s hard for a teacher to give them everything they need,” she said.
Most of the corps members are retired but feel they have experiences and skills that are useful in the classroom.
“I’m a firm believer that we, as an adult, have a responsibility to give something back to the kids, to help them become something,” said Karene Boyd, a corps member. “They are my future.”
But the success is in the present. Johnson said she wanted parents to be able to say, “I can see the community in this school, and I like it.” Now, she hears parents saying just that.