'First time, the first class' Graduation: The ceremony for Morrell Park Elementary-Middle School's eighth grade class brought a satisfying conclusion to a community effort that started five years ago.

June 14, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

The ceremony, one parent remarked, was like an eighth-grade kiss: awkward but sweet, and by the end, more than a little wet.

Morrell Park Elementary-Middle School graduated its first class of eighth-graders yesterday during a carefully scripted two-hour program that took more than a year to plan and about $2,000 to put together.

Plants, flowers and politicians filled the sweltering school gymnasium, balloons covered the worn basketball backboards, and the 62 graduates took turns reciting poetry, mouthing the words to Mariah Carey songs, and giving speeches even as they sweated through their caps and gowns (blue for the boys, yellow for the girls).

"We wanted something big because it's the first time, the first class," said Sandy Shore, president of the Parent-Teacher Organization and treasurer of the community association. "We wanted this to be something that the students, the community and elected officials would remember."

It was a day that many Morrell Park residents never thought would come.

Five years ago, community leaders and parents asked the school board and Superintendent Walter G. Amprey to add grades six, seven and eight to Morrell Park Elementary School.

At first, Amprey and board members were cool to the request. But then parents began attending school board meetings, organizing protests and enlisting City Council members.

Under pressure from the mayor, the board and Amprey reluctantly agreed in 1993 to add one grade each year as part of a rezoning of city schools. Yesterday's graduates would be the guinea pigs, the first sixth- , seventh- and eighth-graders in the school's history.

"Today is a victory for the Morrell Park Elementary-Middle School," Del. Timothy Murphy said in a speech at the morning ceremony. "The battle for this was a long one, a protracted one."

Three years later, the idea is so popular in communities from Glenmont to Lakeland that the school system, at the direction of the mayor, is investigating whether to turn elementary schools in Cherry Hill and Brooklyn into K-8 schools. Gary Thrift, assistant superintendent for the Southern area, said that having a middle school in the neighborhood improves attendance and encourages parental involvement.

Callie Covington, who has taught at the school for 26 years, said discipline is better among Morrell Park's middle-school children because "the teachers have known the parents for so long, and you know the students well enough to tell them to stop doing something."

For community leaders who fought for a kindergarten through eighth-grade school, Amprey's comments at yesterday's ceremony were delicious: "You're looking at someone who learned a lesson," the superintendent said. "You convinced me that your children needed to be in the elementary school environment longer."

That is not to say, students and teachers said, that the transformation of the Morrell Park school has been a complete success.

The eighth-graders have spent much of the past three years in portable classrooms. No space exists for shop or home economics classes. And students' scores on the state performance assessment tests were low enough to land Morrell Park on the state's list of 40 city schools which must reform or risk being taken over. Principal Doug Norris said the attendance rate still is not up to the state standard of 94 percent.

But the eighth-graders say they like the kindergarten through eighth-grade structure because it allows them to attend school in their neighborhood.

Without the change three years ago, Harry "Rocky" Shore, 13, said, he would have had to wake up a full hour earlier to get to

West Baltimore Middle School on the bus, which "would have been scary because you never know about strangers on the bus."

Some eighth-graders complained that attending the same school for nine years has broken the class into cliques, although recent additions to the class say they were welcomed.

"I didn't come to Morrell Park until the sixth grade," said Amanda Holtzapple, 14, who sang two songs during yesterday's ceremony. "And I'm very popular."

Community leaders began planning for the ceremony last fall. Through raffles, bake sales, and donations from businesses, a committee of six residents raised $3,500, including $1,500 for the first middle school yearbook.

Students, working with Covington, planned the program. In honor of the school mascot, the students titled the ceremony "Soar Like an Eagle," and began with a recital of Tennyson's "The Eagle."

Carpet and flowers were laid over the stage, and a handmade banner -- "Morrell Park Class of 96 Graduation" -- formed a black and yellow background.

"This is the best the gym has looked in a long time," Covington said.

Not everything went smoothly. Amprey's remarks were interrupted by an announcement over the school loudspeaker about an illegally parked car. Several graduates -- at that difficult age when girls tower over boys and talking to one's parents is not cool -- covered their faces and slowed the processional when family members tried to take pictures. And during a rendition of ++ Mariah Carey's "Because You Love Me," Carey's voice on a background tape drowned out the students.

The eighth-graders seemed proudest of a skit that six of them performed halfway through the ceremony.

At first, the adolescents discussed the imagined joys of the high school life that lies ahead.

"Girls! Girls! Girls!" one young man said happily.

The skit ended with two seventh-graders being called from the audience. One was made to promise: "I will try to change our school for the better."

Pub Date: 6/14/96

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