Unorthodox ideas for education grow Innovators envision hands-on experiences

June 25, 1996|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

Planes, trains and sushi -- they may all be offered at Baltimore's schools in the future.

Nothing is complete, and there are many approvals by the school system yet to come, but as a city task force drafts policies for contracting school management to private companies and nonprofit groups, several local people say they've got plans for the city's beleaguered public schools.

A teacher and a school staff worker want students to tinker on a plane's engine, as a teacher walks them through a lesson. A career placement executive plans to ship high school students to the National Aquarium or a computer company for part of the day. And a leader at a Mount Washington day school wants to serve sushi in its cafeteria to teach students about the Japanese.

"My students will be able to sit in flight simulators and see and feel for themselves what flying a plane is really like," said Antionette J. Taylor, who wants to start an aviation-theme school. "They'll get to see the map coordinates on the screens, refer to their geography skills, watch the control board light up and feel how bad turbulence can be."

For most, their unorthodox ideas for education grow from a frustration over the quality of schooling in Baltimore.

Felicia Egbe, a former home economics and computer teacher at Carver Vocational Technology High School who is working with Taylor on the aviation-theme school, sees the efforts of the current administration as out of touch with the needs of children -- trying to teach the same old thing with the same old methods.

"We've done a disservice in how we educate our children in this city," she said. "We've got this philosophy that if it ain't broke, don't fix it, but it's been broken for years and we still haven't changed."

Egbe, 42, and Taylor, 37, envision having computers for each of their prospective 300 students and even a sleep-over at the school the night before exams so the students can study together.

Egbe and Taylor say they plan to put a slight twist on the basics of English, math, science and history. They plan to teach U.S. history, for example, in correlation with the history of aviators such as the Tuskegee Airmen who flew during World War II. They may assign essays requiring students to use aviation vocabulary or write a technical report.

"Learning doesn't have to be boring or unrealistic," Egbe said. "We can show students that they can learn things in the school building that they can apply to careers in their life."

For Daisy Nelson, director of Whiteridgely Associates Success Management, a career development company, preparing students for "life after school" is essential for success.

"I keep seeing more and more students come out of city schools ill-prepared for interacting in the workplace," said Nelson, 49. "Kids are learning things in a vacuum. They have no idea how to apply basic skills of math and English to their daily lives."

She wants to give students at her possible high school hands-on projects such as designing a playground for a local ZTC neighborhood. The students would do the design, the building, the marketing, and even raise the funds to complete the work.

"It's a matter of getting them to see how they can use skills like geometry and speaking to get things done," Nelson said. "They are going to have to do this all their lives and our schools aren't making them ready now."

Andrew Ross, executive director of the Children's Guild, a school for emotionally disturbed children, said he plans to bring Disneyland to the middle school he wants to start.

"Amusement parks have such an excitement and aura to them that I want that to be felt by my students when they enter the building," Ross said. "Whether it's neatly manicured trees in the schoolyard or cooking the food of a common Chinese family in the cafeteria, as the students learn about the history of China in the classroom, I want it to be useful, and most importantly interesting knowledge they will keep with them."

Although no one is sure of the exact structures and policies that may come in the future, school innovators all seem to be ironing out their plans.

"We've been talking to professionals who want to come in and help teach lab courses or give lectures; we've talked to business people who are interested in helping out with the finances," Egbe said. "We've got the ball rolling."

But school officials and education experts warn that the process of turning a city school over to a community group or business isn't as easy as it seems.

"You need a team that can combine the skills of getting the school off the ground, keeping it going, and working through all the bureaucratic processes of a school system," said Marc Dean Millot, a senior social scientist for RAND Corp., a public policy think tank in Washington. "A school is a living kind of organization in itself."

So the innovative school plans are dreams for now, and nothing's a reality yet.

"I want a chance to develop and run a new middle school that caters not just to the most difficult kids, but to all types of students, and I'm willing to submit a proposal to work to that goal right away," said Ross. "This is on the right track of improving city schools by letting communities help out, but I'm sure it's going to be a lot of hard work and a long road to get there."

Pub Date: 6/25/96

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