Progressive parents face the public school dilemma in Baltimore.
By Nicole Leistikow / Baltimore
Tuesday, April 2, 2002
“So where's Marcus going to school?” Since Sara S. first enrolled her then two-year-old son at Bolton Hill Nursery in Baltimore, the question has become more and more frequent. (The pressure has grown so uncomfortable, in fact, that Marcus and Sara are not their real names.) Now that Marcus is turning five and starting kindergarten in the fall, Sara is starting to avoid the neighbors and acquaintances who broach the subject at nearly every opportunity. To Sara, the judgment in their words and tone is explicit: “It doesn't imply, it says, these people are going to judge us by the decision we make.”
Sara's situation isn't as familiar as it sounds. She's not just another hyper-competitive urban mother whose child's future will be plunged into non-Ivy League darkness if not accepted into the perfect prestige kindergarten. The pressure on Sara is of an entirely different nature — a vocal group of parents in the middle-class Bolton Hill neighborhood is encouraging her to enroll Marcus in an experimental public school in one of the nation's most maligned school systems.
If Baltimore City Public Schools was a brand name, its image would require a massive reinvention. Among many middle-class parents in the city and its suburbs, the mere mention of BCPS evokes incompetence, inefficiency, academic stagnation, and physical peril. Like many cities across the country, Baltimore is experimenting with new ways to restore faith in its schools. Though Maryland is not among the thirty-plus states that have passed legislation allowing charter schools, it did approve the New Schools Initiative in 1995. The nine public schools created under this mandate, like charter schools, have more flexibility in curriculum development and student and staff selection, and are run by outside operators contracted by the school board.
Hardly any of the young professionals buying bargain houses in Baltimore want their children to go to their local public school. This is no less true in Bolton Hill, a gay and arts-friendly neighborhood of nineteenth-century brick townhouses on Baltimore's predominantly black and poor west side, than in less progressive parts of the city. The idealistic dream of becoming part of a renaissance and moving back to a city where “white flight” has not yet slowed, stalls out on the subject of education. It remains to be seen whether Baltimore's New Initiative Schools will be able to sell themselves to these middle-class parents, whose needs have historically been met by the city and county's numerous private schools. And alternative public schools still need to address the generations-old problems of race and class that still divide some parts of Baltimore into a black/white city.
In Bolton Hill, a growing group of parents are deciding whether to return to the public school system. Midtown Academy, a New Initiative School, is gaining converts from the ranks of Bolton Hill Nursery, a popular daycare and pre-kindergarten school. Besides Midtown, there are two other options: the traditionally public Mount Royal Elementary and a host of private schools anywhere from fifteen to ninety minutes away. For Bolton Hill parents, shopping for schools before their child turns five is an agonizing process complicated by a wide variety of practical concerns, moral and political values, and social aspirations. The stakes are high, sometimes pitting dearly held convictions about the value of public school in a democracy against the intense fear of not doing right by a child. One's choice is closely monitored in this small community, and judged accordingly.
Pounding the pavement
Much of the pressure on Sara S. and other parents comes from Bolton Hill resident John Lau. The ringleader of a campaign to fill the ten kindergarten slots reserved for Bolton Hill kids at Midtown Academy, John lives with wife Iris and daughter Hannah just a few blocks away from both Sara and Bolton Hill Nursery. The upright piano and violin in the corner of their small living room attest to their interest in playing chamber music with friends. Hannah, one of Marcus's classmates at the Nursery, has her own little desk in the dining room, on which her current projects are neatly organized.
Till now, Bolton Hill has scorned Midtown, with most of the slots going to residents of Reservoir Hill, a blacker, poorer neighborhood whose children mostly attend Mount Royal, a larger K-8 school of 850 students. (The other ten slots of Midtown's twenty-person incoming class are reserved for Reservoir Hill; any remaining open spaces are filled by lottery.) Midtown is much newer and smaller that Mount Royal, with only one class in each grade. Since it opened in 1997 with grades kindergarten through third, the school has added one grade a year, and will offer eighth grade starting in the fall. John guesses that the upper grades “are probably 90 percent African American, the lower grades probably 70 percent,” and that kindergarten this fall “could be up to 50-50” if the mostly white parents in Bolton Hill follow through on their promises to enroll their kids. “The school's trying to diversify, but no one wants to be the first,” he says.
John, who first experienced American public schooling when he immigrated to Tennessee from China at age fourteen, is determined to change Bolton Hill's under-utilization of Midtown. It was he who convinced Iris, who came to America from China only when she was ready to get her MBA, that public school could be valuable. “I think a little adversity is good for kids,” he explains. “I would like for Hannah to be able to see that there are people struggling, that life is not just everything given to you, and appreciate what she has, and that she has to work for it.” He also thinks Bolton Hill's kids and their well-educated, well-off parents are the key to the school's success. “I would say that maybe half of the reason [we're sending Hannah there] is because...we want to see the school succeed.”
The dream of a neighborhood school
John's optimism seems shared at Midtown Academy itself. Principal Diane Isle is stern as she passes a few stragglers stepping out of line on their way to art class, but her overall effect is that of a determined and enthusiastic cheerleader. Her purple headband, blue velour jumpsuit, and bouncy blond hair don't hurt either. She shows off her small building proudly. An art room displays models of Grecian pottery that students are attempting to replicate. An English room sports the sign “The Biggest Sin in Writing is to Be Boring!” Most classrooms have at least two adults, twenty-two or fewer kids, and a surprising amount of one-on-one instruction. Part of the explanation is that Midtown has excellent relationships with teacher training programs in the city and benefits from a core of interns. Isle actively courts Bolton Hill parents and knows that a high teacher-to-pupil ratio is a strong selling point. And Midtown, like all schools in Baltimore, is focused on raising its Maryland State Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) scores. This year the school did well, averaging 41.9 (the goal is an average score of 70 out of 100), nearly twice the average for the rest of Baltimore City's public schools.
Midtown's ninety-hour-per-year parent volunteer requirement also virtually ensures that high-powered parents will be directly involved in maintaining the school. At the same time, this requirement may put pressure on poorer, less available families to either shape up or ship out. But for now, the main problem is a lack of space. They've been efficient with what they have — their physical education program, for example, is focused around Tae Kwon Do taught in the cafeteria. However they desperately want to expand and are being hampered by some resistance in the neighborhood, primarily from nearby residents who don't appreciate the sounds of children getting out of school.
But for John, a neighborhood school — noise and all — complements his vision of an ideal city life. He has been in Bolton Hill for six years and describes it as “real community that you can't find anywhere else.” He imagines the suburbs as a place where “you just drive up and your garage door opens, you pull your car in and the garage door closes, the TV turns on and that's the end of the day.” So John carries out his campaign, whether at the local swimming club or at the Hidden Bean, the local corner coffee shop. Because there are only ten slots, assigned by lottery, John jokes about being too successful in his efforts to convince other Bolton Hill parents to give Midtown a try. “It's ironic that we're now thinking that maybe we should apply to private schools as a back up,” he says, but finishes with a genuine “but that's good!”
Although Mount Royal is also a neighborhood school only two blocks away from the Lau family, they aren't considering the predominantly black school, not even as a back up. If Hannah's “the only person of only one race then she may not feel too comfortable,” says John. “Just to be honest.”
Opting out of the 'experiment'
WHERE TO NEXT? While their parents contemplate the next step, students get to work at Bolton Hill Nursery school. (Nicole Leistikow)
Sara S. has a smiling brown face and doesn't hesitate to voice her opinions. An attorney for the state of Maryland, she calls herself “an older mom” at age forty-six, is well-established in her career, and is dedicated to driving Marcus to extracurricular activities such as gymnastics (though she wishes Marcus's dad would do some of the chauffeuring as well). Her kitchen has been taken over by Marcus, who is building extensive highways for his Hot Wheels out of masking tape. Both the kitchen and the dining room feature elaborate collections of his artwork, toys, and projects. There is a comfortable messiness about the place, a feeling that one could begin a special project, and others would respect it, even if it got in the way, as much as practicality allowed.
In a recent conference with Marcus's teacher at Bolton Hill Nursery, Sara learned that her son sometimes “refuses to speak in circle time,” an evaluation that has furthered her resolve to consider a private school. “[Marcus] is not pushy,” she explains, “so if someone gets in front of him, most of the time that person can get in front of him.” She was frustrated watching one of his Saturday gymnastics classes. “My kid was constantly overlooked in a class of eleven because he's quiet and no trouble,” she says, citing “inexperienced teachers” who spent all their time wrangling ill-behaved children back into line. Marcus, Sara says, missed one turn on the rings, one turn on the trampoline, and two turns doing somersaults.
She believes that the small class size and higher teacher retention rate of a private school will be best for her son's personality, and she seems to relish having the option of sending her son to prestigious McDonogh, the $14,000-a-year private school that's their number one choice. McDonogh's campus emulates a university's, with a separate library and an indoor swimming pool. Sara's own educational experience was “in an insolated, lower middle-class African American environment. Up until the time I was a teenager I don't think I ever had, except for in youth orchestra, any regular contact outside of the black community in D.C.” She's glad Marcus is growing up in a more diverse, more “realistic” setting.
Midtown Academy is Marcus's parents' number three choice, after the private Grace and St. Peter's. Sara was insulted when a white colleague, who had struggled to send her own kids to private Roland Park Country Day, advised her to check out Midtown. Seeing her associate's suggestion “as some kind of classist-slash-racist statement,” she resented the assumption that because she is black, she doesn't have the resources to send Marcus to a private school. “She has two girls that she had to raise by herself, but she struggled to send them to a private school,” says Sara of her co-worker. “She stretched it, but I should just settle for this public school? She's never been and she knows nothing about it, except for what she's read.” The ability to consider a private school signifies an important advantage to Sara, especially in this city. Even if Midtown were “the number one [public] school in Baltimore City,” she says, “I still would have concerns and still would consider sending him somewhere that I thought he'd be a little bit more protected.”
Sara echoes the refrain of many parents when she says, “I don't want to experiment with my child.” Though she is in favor of public schooling in general, and although Midtown offers many advantages that Mount Royal does not, it hasn't been around long enough for Sara to see it as reliable. And she resents pressure from people in the neighborhood “who feel this experiment is the right thing to do, supporting the public school system, and if you don't do that, you're doing something that is not the right thing to do, as in wrong, as in politically incorrect and maybe morally also.”
Although Sara has a friend in the school system who told her not to overlook Mount Royal because of its strong reputation and high standardized test scores, she did not seriously consider it for Marcus. She echoes the sentiments of many Bolton Hillers when she says, “I have seen the kids coming back and forth from Mount Royal and I haven't been particularly impressed with their behavior in public.” Because of resident complaints that the students litter and are rowdy, the school developed a “character education program” and stationed volunteers at problem intersections to supervise children's behavior on their way to and from school. Despite these efforts, relations with the neighborhood remain somewhat strained.
The school on the wrong side of the street
ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD": Students on their way to Mount Royal Elementary in Bolton Hill, a Baltimore neighborhood. (Nicole Leistikow)
Few Bolton Hill parents bring up the topic of Mount Royal voluntarily, or can boast of having actually set foot inside the building. And though the school is only a block away from Midtown, one woman located Mount Royal “on the other side of the neighborhood.” It may have been a slip of the tongue, but others also exaggerate the geographic distance of the school. Indeed, there is a cultural and class distance between Bolton Hill and Mount Royal, and that may be what many in the neighborhood unconsciously perceive.
Mount Royal principal Mark Frankel actually isn't much interested in why Bolton Hill parents, as a rule of thumb, do not even consider Mount Royal as an option. Frankel, in his early fifties, is short and dapper, and looks more like a winning lawyer in his suit and glasses than an elementary school principal. His humor and charm serve him well, because he doesn't mince words. He is blunt in his surmises about Bolton Hill's lack of interest in Mount Royal, which he says is 99.8 percent African American. “I think parents want their kids to be with children like them,” he says. “Certain schools are better calling cards.” In Frankel's ideal world, the main determinant in school choice should be high standards.
And Mount Royal's high standards have delivered. The school performs in the top 5 percent of schools receiving Title 1 funds (federal monies for disadvantaged institutions). Though 80 percent of its students receiving free or reduced lunch, the school's MSPAP scores averaged 38.8 this year and its fifth graders typically score first in the state in math. Classes sizes are eighteen and under in the lower school, and twenty-five in grades six through eight. Linda Eberhart, Baltimore City's teacher of the year, teaches at Mount Royal and touts the school at every public appearance. And while Frankel's school has had positive coverage on CNN and NBC, Bolton Hillers still aren't convinced that there's a jewel hiding in their midst.
But the stigma of being part of BCPS seems impossible to overcome. Parents like Sara, for example, cite concerns about violence at the school. In fact, Frankel had to fight to retain the school police officer — the expense was deemed unnecessary because no incidents had ever been reported. “We don't market the school,” says Frankel of Bolton Hill. His decision not to focus on recruiting middle-class parents suggests he sees the effort as a losing battle.
Why don't Bolton Hill parents, who are enthusiastic about public schooling, see Mount Royal as a brand they can trust? Or even a brand they want to know more about? Cindy Patak, who sent two daughters to Mount Royal and now has one at Midtown, suggests possible answers.
What goes unsaid
Cindy is a youthful-looking city planner in her early forties, with spiky hair and black leather jacket. Over coffee at the Hidden Bean, Cindy sighs in frustration. “I know a lot of people in Bolton Hill couldn't believe I ever sent my kids to Mount Royal,” she says. “I'm just tired of hearing the same response or lack of response — they stutter and they look to find words that are acceptable. They kind of lament about education in the city of Baltimore as a whole.”
Cindy actually lives outside of Bolton Hill in Union Square, a small enclave of middle-class families situated around a green in SoWeBo (southwest Baltimore), which is otherwise one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. When she moved there in 1988, Mount Royal was accepting students outside its “zone” to its Gifted and Talented Program (since disbanded). She is satisfied with the education her two daughters, Eleina and Lela, received there, though by the time Lela graduated from eighth grade the school was experiencing some difficulties.
Cindy is adamant about her daughters' right to a free public education, and did consider Mount Royal once again for her youngest daughter. But by that time, getting in from outside the neighborhood was virtually impossible. She is glad that seven-year-old Alicia is in second grade at Midtown, which may not be admitting kids outside the neighborhood this year if Bolton Hill fills up its ten slots. Although Bolton Hill's previous reluctance to try Midtown may have benefited Alicia, Cindy is critical about neighborhood attitudes. “A lot of parents from Bolton Hill Nursery did not send their kids to Midtown, and while they used a lot of other words for it, I think a lot did have to do with race,” she says. “Everyone talked about how great [the school] was, and what a great idea,” but when it came down to it, only two children followed Alicia to Midtown from nursery school.
Yet Cindy, who is white, is more comfortable with Alicia, whose father is African American, at the more diverse Midtown. She feels Lela and Eleina, who are half Moroccan, may have suffered from an attitude at Mount Royal, typical in Baltimore, that insists on dividing people into black and white categories that don't always apply. Midtown is more diverse, more bi-racial, and more open. This openness may be what is changing the minds of so many parents in Bolton Hill — parents who have been skittish about choosing a predominately black school for their children — for the first time this year. Midtown offers a convenient compromise.
A new year, a new class, a New School
Next fall, a new kindergarten class will enter Midtown Academy. And even if Bolton Hillers renege on their promises to attend, at least Midtown was in the running. Mount Royal was not. Despite high test scores, a strong reputation, and a principal who excels in obtaining resources, it is seen by many as simply a poor black school — and therefore, quite simply, not a choice. Unfazed, Mark Frankel is focused on serving his majority poor, majority black children and their parents. He does not intend to address middle-class fears, or to change his school's image to something more attractive to Bolton Hill parents.
Midtown's success in shaping itself into something more alternative and fashionable is a result of its ability to distinguish and distance itself from traditional public schools like Mount Royal — racially, culturally, and academically. Midtown Academy shows that middle-class parents will come back to the public school system, but only if courted appropriately. In that sense, the experiment has been a success. But for other public schools, it seems, all the work in the world may not change the minds of the middle class.
In the meantime, acceptance letters were mailed out last week. At least twelve Bolton Hill families — a record number — applied to Midtown Academy. For the first time in its history, the school's Bolton Hill slots are filled, and some families had to be turned down. John Lau describes the competition this year as a “180 degree turn” from last year, when only two Bolton Hill kids enrolled. Hannah Lau was accepted, and her father will find out in the fall if his vision of a neighborhood school is shared."