Making a school work Involved: The Parent Teacher Organization of Mount Washington Elementary fights the private education trend. Parents use innovation in a relentless effort ato keep the school one of Baltimore's finest.

April 23, 1996|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,SUN STAFF

They are as dogged as car salesmen, as sophisticated as a political action committee and as generous as doting grandparents.

They are the members of Mount Washington Elementary School's Parent Teacher Organization -- a single-minded group when it comes to keeping their school one of the best in Baltimore and on academic par with other Maryland public schools.

At a time when other wealthy city neighborhoods have long abandoned public schools for private education, many Mount Washington residents continue to send their children to the public elementary school.

"People who move to Mount Washington are more independent-thinking than in Guilford and Homeland, where the lawns are all so manicured. Guilford and Homeland have ceased trying to make their public schools work," said Lu Pierson, a former PTO president who sent three children through the elementary school that her husband attended as a child.

"In Mount Washington, we're still making it work," she said.

For decades, the Mount Washington PTO has been known as a formidable force in a school system where trouble-shooting has become a way of life.

They jam fax machines at City Hall when school buses are cut back, flood the education department with protest letters when funds are tight and hound the mayor at his public appearances to heed their problems.

They've gone to New York City to bring back a private school's math program, painted the school library and taught first-graders how to draw like Vincent Van Gogh.

They've auctioned a Cal Ripken baseball and gift certificates to Baltimore's finest restaurants so their children can have art class and a librarian in a school system where both are rare.

Their bake sales are legendary, too. On election days, when school is closed, voters buy coffee and cake to support the school.

"We have a core group of people and a history of not being content with the status quo. That's the legacy of Mount Washington. There's always more you can do," said Hillary Jacobs, a former PTO president who has sent two sons to Mount Washington Elementary.

The parents try to work closely with the principal and teachers, not only to prevent friction, but to make sure they share common goals.

"I don't think it takes away my power. It empowers me," Princi- pal Jacqueline Waters-Scofield said of the active parents.

Ms. Waters-Scofield came to Mount Washington Elementary three years ago from two other schools in communities where parents were not as wealthy or as sophisticated as those in Mount Washington.

Ms. Jacobs, like many active parents in the school, is a professional who uses her knowledge to raise money and lobby the administration.

For the past seven years, Ms. Jacobs, who runs a public relations firm, has helped operate an auction that draws 250 people and raises $17,000 a year.

This year's auction will be at 8 p.m. Saturday at the school, 1801 Sulgrave Ave.

But fund raising is only part of parents' volunteer work at the school.

In a struggling school system, fighting the administration with dwindling funds also is a part of keeping the school afloat.

"Mount Washington is great. It's the system that stinks," said Sherri Levin, another former PTO president who has two daughters in the school.

"You worry about the system, you worry about the state taking over and about never having enough money. It's a never-ending battle. But the school works because we fight back," she said.

While Mount Washington parents have a reputation for confronting the administration, they also have gained respect.

"They have the type of advocates I'd like to see in all our schools," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

He recalled parents hounding him several years ago when his administration tried to cut school bus service for Mount Washington students.

"They showed up at every neighborhood meeting I went to in Northwest Baltimore. They always sent someone," he said.

Parents say their zeal comes not only from wanting a good education for their children, but from their philosophical belief in public education.

"I feel if people consistently opt out of public schools, we're dooming our system. If there's no parity, the rift in our society will go deeper and deeper," said lawyer Deborah Singer Howard, who attended Mount Washington Elementary 30 years ago.

"All my colleagues and friends send their kids to private school. They probably think I'm a liberal," said Ms. Howard, who works for a downtown law firm.

For most parents, their involvement at Mount Washington began by volunteering in the classroom.

Taylor Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Parting the Waters," a history of the civil rights movement, worked often in the school when his two children attended in the early 1990s.

He coached on the playground, taught mystery writing and filled in for teachers who left the classroom for emergencies.

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