It's black history every day at Unseld

February 04, 1992|By Marilyn McCraven

Students at Unseld School don't have to wait until February rolls around to hear about such great Americans as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, says Connie Unseld, the school's founder and director.

"Black History Month is every month," Mrs. Unseld said. "It has to be a part of the curriculum every day. It can't be separate. It tells you who you are, what you are and why you're that way."

Unseld School, one of a few fully accredited, black-owned, non-church-affiliated elementary schools in Maryland, educates students about black history through such activities as visiting museums with relevant exhibits, reading books and decorating bulletin boards with pictures of famous black Americans.

Teaching black children about their history helps build self-esteem, making them feel good about themselves and in turn helps them to achieve, she said.

The emphasis on self-esteem is evident in the Unseld Pledge that a group of 4-year-olds eagerly recited to a visitor on a recent afternoon.

The pledge begins with each child declaring himself as "a unique person" who sets goals and tries to reach them and that one reachable goal is to learn something new every day.

Making children eager to learn was one of the primary reasons Mrs. Unseld opened her school in 1978. It began as a preschool with just a few students -- her son and some children of friends. But it steadily grew, she said.

"People said there was a need for a quality environment. It's so important for children to have a sound foundation before they go to school," she said.

Before opening her school, Mrs. Unseld had been a Baltimore public school teacher. She had left teaching to raise her own children and work on a master's degree in education.

During that time she traveled to Israel where she visited a kibbutz where the children of working parents were cared for in a loving, family-like environment.

She now feels that she has created such an environment in her own school, which has grown steadily over the years. It now has 170 students ranging in age from infants to fifth graders.

The infants and toddlers are enrolled in the day care center in a church around the corner from the main school building, which is near the intersection of Frederick Avenue and South Hilton Street in West Baltimore.

While Unseld School is open to all students regardless of race, the student body is predominantly black. Faculty and staff are evenly divided between the races.

Over the years, students have come from as far away as Silver Spring and Columbia, Mrs. Unseld said. Some parents initially choose the school because it's close to their jobs, but most think it provides their children with a better environment for learning than other schools, Mrs. Unseld said.

"They tell me that they feel that it's a safe, caring environment," she said.

Mrs. Unseld, the product of public schools and the daughter of a retired public school administrator, said she never dreamed that she would open a private school. But she said her school is a welcome alternative to schools, both public and private, that fail to motivate children to learn.

She recalled that in her youth "private schools were for the snooty kids."

But she emphasizes that while most of her students are from middle-class homes, a sizable number are from single-parent families who have to make great sacrifices to send their children to private school.

With that in mind, Mrs. Unseld tries to keep tuition low. "Over the past 10 years, our tuition has gone from about $50 a week to about $60," said the school's principal, Herschel Martin, who is a retired public school principal from Louisville, Ky., and Mrs. Unseld's father.

One reason for the moderate tuition increases is that neither Mrs. Unseld nor Martin receive salaries, she said.

She thanks her husband, Wes Unseld, coach of the Washington Bullets professional basketball team, for providing the money to begin the school and supporting it by doing such mundane things as cutting the grass.

"I see what I'm doing as a mission," Mrs. Unseld said. "I'm going back into the community to teach. My true gift is teaching."

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