This Unseld calls shots for grade-schoolers

February 09, 1992|By Sandra Crockett

Her name usually appears in print followed by a parenthetical phrase, but Connie Unseld (wife of Wes) doesn't mind.

At 43, she's comfortable with the label of NBA wife. She doesn't mind being defined in terms of her athlete husband, the former basketball player who is now head coach for the Washington Bullets. In fact, "Her delight would be to sit next to me on the bench and be my assistant coach for the day," says Wes Unseld, 45. He jokes that he recaps games with his wife, "whether I want to or not."

But that's by no means the whole picture. Her husband may describe her "as a student of basketball," but education is really her forte.

Mrs. Unseld is the one who calls the shots at the state-accredited, independent Unselds' School, which serves 175 children from infants through fifth-graders and where the focus is on educating the "total" child.

"A lot of people put emphasis on the intellectual," Mrs. Unseld said. "That is important. But to me, the emphasis should be on the total development -- the physical, emotional, social and intellectual."

The school sits on the busy corner of Hilton Street and Frederick Avenue in a working-class southwest Baltimore neighborhood, next door to an auto repair shop and across the street from brick rowhouses. It is a secure building -- press a bell to be buzzed in -- but beyond the door are classrooms festooned with children's artwork, a media center with computers and a small oasis of a courtyard.

Except for the portrait of co-owner Mr. Unseld hanging conspicuously in the school's reception area, the building does not display any of the razzmatazz associated with big-name athletes.

Neither, for that matter, does Connie Unseld.

In the early days of their marriage, Connie Unseld knew she didn't want to build a life around being the wife of Wes. She would call him "in L.A., Denver or wherever and you're sitting at home. It could get very boring, and I said, 'This is not going to work.' "

She began teaching at a Baltimore public school and eventually returned to college to get a master's degree in education. Teaching, she said, is all she ever wanted to do.

"For me, it's almost like a mission," said the woman who speaks clearly and pointedly looks into the eyes of whomever she is speaking with. Just a little make-up graces her unlined freckled face, which is surrounded by shoulder-length curly black hair. "Yes, I get physically tired," she said. "But I never get bored."

Unselds' School opened its doors in 1978 as a day-care center. In 1983, it received state accreditation and "We started adding one See UNSELD, 6H, Col. 1UNSELD, from 1year at a time," she said.

Opening the school was a big step for the former Constance Marie Martin, who was born in rural Morganfield, Ky., which had a population of about 6,500. She grew up the middle child in a family of five children. Her father was a Baptist minister and a public school principal.

It was an environment "Where everybody knew everybody" and "School was important to the whole community," she said.

The Unselds' School is a family affair. She is the school's director, and her father, Herschel Martin, 73, is the principal. Daughter Kimberly, 18, a freshman at Hood College, and son Wes Jr., 16, a Loyola High School junior and basketball player (who was one of the first graduates from the family's school), help out when they can.

"It is truly a school family," said Jodellano Statom, an administrator for the Maryland Department of Education, who met Connie Unseld about eight years ago when she went to observe the school. She has since become friends with the Unselds and often talks over educational issues with Mrs. Unseld.

"They work with the students just like they would work with their own children," Dr. Statom said. "Everyone is respected as an individual."Nurturing's important, too

The door to Mrs. Unseld's tiny office -- which is jammed with books, files, a computer and a copying machine, and is adorned with her and Wes' college degrees, numerous citations and schedules -- is always open. But she is seldom inside.

Instead, she is out monitoring classes and getting down on the floor to talk with the children, as she did on one recent day with 10 energetic 3-year-olds. It doesn't matter that she is conservatively dressed in a business suit -- down she goes.

"What song are you learning today?" she asks the children, consciously speaking to them in grammatically correct, whole sentences. She isn't the only one conservatively dressed. Although the school has no dress code, neatness is expected, and at least two of the boys in the pre-kindergarten class are wearing ties.

When not talking with students, Mrs. Unseld is planning education seminars for the parents, keeping the staff of about 30 updated on new trends -- and always there are plenty of shoelaces to bend down and tie.

Yes, she looks tired. But she perks up when talking passionately about education.

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