By Mary Clare Fisher
Capital News Service
BALTIMORE – Five days a week last year, Kate Williams drove her daughter past Locust Point’s elementary school to the well-regarded public school a neighborhood away. After a while, Williams began to wonder what she was doing.
“It was like, ‘Why aren’t we going here?’” Williams said of Francis Scott Key Elementary/Middle on East Fort Avenue in Locust Point. “If I’m not going to my local school, how can I look at my neighborhood and say they need to make it a priority?”
Locust Point is growing, and parents like Williams have noticed that public schools in nearby neighborhoods have improved dramatically with the help of parents. This fall, the Locust Point Civic Association created a committee to improve the relationship between the community and Francis Scott Key Elementary/Middle School.
A new principal, who grew up in Locust Point, has long-term changes planned for the school. Even residents who don’t have children or whose kids aren’t old enough to go to school yet are starting to see the school as a neighborhood asset.
And this year, Williams’ daughter, Evie, is a kindergartener at Francis Scott Key Elementary.
A strong school will attract more resident support, but support is often necessary to build up the school in the first place — which doesn’t happen when residents are sending their children to schools outside of the community.
“There’s nothing that can substitute for parental involvement, but which is the chicken and which is the egg?” said Kalman Hettleman, a former deputy mayor for education.
In Baltimore, the public school system has struggled for years, and parents who are afraid of their zoned high schools send their children to both public and private schools elsewhere early.
Digital Harbor High School, in Federal Hill, for example, has had its problems — in November, a video emerged of students taunting and throwing paper at a teacher there.
In Locust Point, tensions had escalated between the community and Francis Scott Key Elementary/Middle School in recent years, thanks to unruly behavior that included a fight between two middle-schoolers in May, 2011. In 2010, only 29 percent of students agreed that fighting was not a problem at the school, according to an annual Baltimore city school survey.
And a report last June ranked Francis Scott Key a little higher in “educational adequacy” than the average Baltimore public school, but that grade was still just above failing.
So Locust Point parents were wary.
“If you had been ripped off by Girl Scouts your entire life, you probably wouldn’t ask your kids to buy Girl Scout cookies,” said Terry Hickey, president of the Locust Point Civic Association. “We’re asking parents to buy into an educational system that screwed them every which way.”
Yet Baltimore City Councilman William H. Cole IV said the perception of the public schools shouldn’t apply citywide.
“If the headlines say that every school is failing, people go in with a preconceived notion that every single school in the system is not adequate for our kids, and that’s not true,” said Cole, who represents Locust Point. “You had new, young families moving in (to Locust Point) under the impression that you couldn’t even consider your local school, but a handful want to give it a try.”
If the school is good, said Matthew Kachura of the Baltimore Neighborhood Indicators Alliance, it’s used by the neighborhood as a marketing tool.
If the neighborhood is strong, in turn, children arrive at school more prepared to learn — sometimes already reading, said Faith Connolly, executive director of the Baltimore Education Research Consortium.
John Shea, who chairs the civic association’s education committee, said creating partnerships with local organizations and businesses, such as the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance and Under Armour, have helped encourage residents to work on improving the school.
Shea and Williams sat on the committee that selected Francis Scott Key’s principal, Mary McComas, who is a Locust Point native. And Shea oversaw work on summer upgrades that included freshly painted lockers and a new robotics lab.
McComas is working on a five-year plan for improvements and is looking to amp up the curriculum while adding more after-school programs.
McComas and Shea are also working on establishing a pool of substitute teachers, tapping retired teachers in the community so that Francis Scott Key can participate in professional development days during the school year.
In addition, six members from the civic association helped clean out storage rooms the Saturday before Hurricane Sandy. None of them had children at the school.
“Some are retired, some don’t have children, some have children they’re planning on sending here,” said McComas. “As a person who’s the new leader of the school, I have been tremendously impressed at the community’s commitment to the school and their outreach to be part of ensuring that this a wonderful place to be.”
Shea said five or six families have enrolled their children in Francis Scott Key this year, a first step. He says wherever he goes — cookouts at Latrobe Park or the civic association Christmas party — he brings up the topic of the school and encourages residents to send their children there, or at least work on its improvement.
“The most important thing that we can do is to engage the current members of our own community,” Shea said. “There are other people who are working on bigger things, and if we can engage the community to support the school, I think that will go a long way in ensuring the success of it.
“We don’t want it to just be a school in Locust Point. We want it to be a Locust Point school.”
Joyce Epstein, director of the Center on School, Family and Community Partnerships and the National Network of Partnership Schools, at Johns Hopkins University, said that this “team approach” is the best strategy for improving schools.
“Family involvement and community partnerships can help, because they support the students in the same way that the teachers are trying to emphasize reaching and attaining goals,” she said, “in order to have that accountability to which the schools are being held to show that they’re good places.”
Kate Williams said more young people have moved to the neighborhood, with a lot of people who bought homes after college or early in their marriage. Now, those couples’ children are starting to reach school age, and the parents must make choices about their education.
“There’s a pretty solid pipeline of buggies and strollers right now,” Williams said.
Hickey said the bad economy kept some residents in Locust Point instead of moving away – and that may have benefited the school. If parents won’t be leaving Locust Point and want to send their kids to the neighborhood school, they need to be invested in that school.
Involving more parents helps the whole neighborhood, he added.
“It’s an amazing experiment in neighborhood education,” he said. “There’s something to be said for the neighborhood around a school feeling ownership of the school.”
Located down the street from Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key Elementary, which consists of pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, was formerly known as the Female Grammar School #16.
Francis Scott Key Elementary didn’t always have a negative reputation. Shea said he’s talked to older Locust Point residents who have fond memories of the school, “No. 76.”
Today, 68 percent of the children who attend the school are black or Latino, in a neighborhood that’s 94 percent white. Francis Scott Key has two specialized programs for students with disabilities, which draw some students from outside the neighborhood. But some simply come because they prefer Francis Scott Key over their zoned school.
Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Andrès Alonso knows there’s still a lot of work to be done throughout the school system.
“We have made progress, but we haven’t leapt in the ways that might be expected given how we broke ground in the past,” he said. “There might be waves on the surface, but the sediment is still. As a parent, you should be demanding more for your kids.”
That’s why Williams and Shea will keep working to build a relationship between the school and the community. They hope that Francis Scott Key will become a National Blue Ribbon School, a place “where students perform at very high levels or where significant improvements are being made in students’ levels of academic achievement,” according to the U.S. Department of Education’s website.
“It partially depends on the principal,” Hettleman said. “But if you get parents involved raising hell and stuff, (the schools) are going to improve.”