A true community school Education: Midtown Academy is one of four schools begun this year, with foundations and local groups receiving money to run them.

December 26, 1997|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

As a small, urban school struggled to be born in Bolton Hill in the fall, a group of parents, teachers and volunteers labored to get the building ready for the first day.

They were white and black, working class from Reservoir Hill and middle class from Bolton Hill, experienced educators and parents of newborns five years from seeing the inside of a school.

"We all stood shoulder to shoulder, paint brush to paint brush, toilet to toilet," said Edward Young, director of Metro Delta Head Start Center and one of the school's avid supporters.

"People who may have had anxieties about the two communities, we worked through our anxieties," Young said. "This [school] is a vision. When you see this then it makes you want to work harder."

Midtown Academy is one of four public schools begun this year as the latest in the city's experiment with reforming public education. Foundations and community groups were given contracts to start schools and money to run them.

A still-untested institution struggling to get through its first academic year, Midtown has begun to build a bridge between people in the two communities, the founders say. In addition, early signs show that homeowners might be drawn to the community or stay there because of the school.

It sprouted from the discontent of middle-class families in Bolton Hill frustrated because they felt their choice was moving out or sending their child to a private school.

They wanted a simple thing: a good neighborhood school.

"I don't like the idea of a two-tiered educational system," said Molly Jackman, the mother of a kindergartner at the school and one of its founders. "I think the school is an opportunity to offer another alternative."

The school's most important mission is to maintain high academic standards, but it also strives to be diverse with 50 percent of the student body coming from each community.

This first year, however, only a handful of children from Bolton Hill are attending the school. Many Bolton Hill families whose children might have attended this year, Jackman said, had to make a decision about a private school long before it was clear that Midtown would open.

She expects that will change now that the school is open and parents can visit.

Located at 1398 Mount Royal Ave. in Bolton Hill in a building shared with the Maryland Institute, College of Art, the school has 78 students in kindergarten through third grade. Classes are no larger than 20.

The school has no wide linoleum halls or tiled walls, no water fountains, no bustle at the ringing of bells.

The few classrooms are small with shiny wooden floors, big windows and bright white walls. The principal's office is a simple desk, next to the parent volunteers and behind the secretary.

Midtown gets the same dollar amount per pupil as other city schools. "But we don't get our building, a blackboard or a piece of chalk from the city," said Wendy Samet, a parent and Midtown's chief executive officer. To make up the difference, the school has gotten several grants from educational foundations and donations from parents.

Another gift came in the form of a part-time principal. "A lot of serendipitous things happened that allowed us to open the school, not the least of which was Evelyn Beasley," said Samet. Beasley, a 38-year veteran of the city school system who retired as Roland Park Elementary School principal, has helped guide the school with her knowledge of the workings of city school headquarters.

But Beasley said it is the teachers and parents who own the school, and her most difficult role at times has been to convince parents that they have control over their child's education. "It has been hard making sure that parents understand we mean for them to be empowered. They don't understand that this is not top down." Many of the decisions are made by a committee that includes parents. "It takes longer, but it works," she said.

The school requires all parents to do at least 75 hours of volunteer work in the school a year. Anyone in a child's family -- from a grandparent to an aunt -- can fulfill the requirement and it often can involve tasks that can be done at home. But a child whose family does not help out will have to leave the school.

Most parents are happy to volunteer. Jacquetta Conwell, the parent of a first-grader in the school, said she was drawn to the school because of some unhappy experiences with her older daughter in the public schools. "This is my dream come true," she said. "I love Midtown Academy. They take more time. The children are not yelled at or ignored."

Beasley said the school requires parents to be involved, but has no other demands.

"We don't have an entrance examination. You don't have to be anything other than hard-working and earnest," said Beasley.

The school has more freedom to hire its own staff and more freedom to move teachers that don't work out. The teachers, however, are public school employees and work under a union contract.

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