The school building is a converted crack house in one of Baltimore's most impoverished neighborhoods. Lunch is served in a small, second-story room with two tables, a pair of microwaves and a refrigerator. Recess and physical education are at a playground down the street.
Most important, you can count on both hands the number of students in each class -- in uniforms of plaid skirts, white shirts and blue sweaters for the girls, and dark pants, white shirts and blue sweaters for the boys.
Now in its third year, the tiny (25 students, three teachers), low-budget (annual operating costs: about $90,000) New Song Academy serves Sandtown-Winchester children in grades six through eight.
Last night, the nonprofit New Song Community Learning Center, which operates the academy and affiliated preschool and after-school programs, was one of seven groups approved by the school board to operate nine public schools in the city as part of a "new schools" initiative.
New Song Executive Director Susan Tibbels said yesterday that the academy sought the "new school" designation -- which carries with it per pupil public funding that is likely to be between $3,000 and $5,000 a year -- to enable it to expand to include kindergarten through fifth grades and to solidify its finances.
"We have to have long-term sustainability," Tibbels said of the school, which now relies on foundation grants and $10 monthly tuition.
Noting that the academy eventually hopes to have 12 students in each grade, many to be housed in a new privately funded $4.5 million building on a vacant lot it owns across from its current building, Tibbels added, "We want to expand because we believe in our program. We think it's working."
Just how it is working was apparent during a visit to the school yesterday.
In an airy, brightly decorated first-floor classroom, eight students sat at two clusters of desks, working on mimeographed handouts of singular and plural verbs or polishing writing assignments on a movie of their choice.
The teacher, LaTarsha Russell, went from student to student, checking the work.
Scanning the description that Jana Goodson, 14, wrote of Troy ** Carmichael, the only girl in a family of boys in Spike Lee's 1994 memoir "Crooklyn," Russell had some suggestions.
"Was she strong for her age? Did she help out? Did she make things worse? That's the kind of things you put down for 'character,' " said Russell.
In its classrooms, New Song uses a modified version of the private Calvert School curriculum, which stresses fundamentals of reading and writing, that is also used in two city schools.
Other elements of New Song are more unusual. The school day goes from 8: 30 a.m. to 5 p.m., with the last hour devoted to homework. The school calendar runs year-round, with five or six weeks of instruction followed by a break. Traditional grades are not given. Students must agree to remain for a fourth year if the staff feels they need additional preparation for high school.
Russell, who started teaching at New Song after graduating from Duke University in 1995, said she wanted to teach in the city where she grew up but chose the academy over city schools, though her mother is a long-time teacher at nearby Gilmor Elementary.
"It's like family here," she said. "It's a very friendly environment."
Russell, who earned a master's degree from the Johns Hopkins University last December, says she doesn't mind the salary of $22,000 a year, about $2,600 less than a beginning teacher makes in city schools.
"This is my first job other than student teaching," she said. "The salary I'm getting is a lot for me."
As you might expect from a group of young teen-agers, some of the students don't lack for complaints about their school.
"It's too long to be staying in school," said Ronnell Lewis, 15. "And the uniforms -- they're ugly."
"I could even deal with the uniforms, if they let us out at 3 o'clock," added Natoya Miller, 13.
William A. Scipio Jr., 12, began at New Song in November after two months at Harlem Park Middle School, one of the schools in Baltimore's aborted school privatization effort. He said one of the most striking differences between the two schools is in the students' attitudes.
At Harlem Park, he said, "You can't learn nothing because kids are disrespecting teachers, kids are fighting teachers, kids are fighting each other. Students here help me out when I need their help."
It was to help students like Scipio through the critical years of middle school that the New Song Academy was begun in the fall of 1994, an extension of the then 3-year-old community learning center and a cousin to community-based organizations that include a church, an employment program and the nationally known Sandtown Habitat for Humanity that turns rundown properties into neighborhood homes.
Residents helped convert a crack house on the verge of collapse into the school.
"The building was in a total state of disrepair," she said. "Volunteers came in and worked and worked and worked."
With New Song Academy poised to expand, some of that same sense of commitment and excitement is beginning to build.
"I can't wait," said Renee Hopkins, 26, who has two children enrolled at Gilmor Elementary but would love to put them in the academy, where she works as an aide, checking uniforms and monitoring the lunchroom.
"If I could bring my children into an atmosphere of 1 teacher to 10 students, of course they'd learn more," she said.
Pub Date: 1/24/97