Patricia Morris knows where to get the straight scoop when she goes into a school. So when she walked into Stadium School yesterday, the Baltimore school board member politely ditched the principal and headed for the children.
"How do you like your school?" she asked pupils. "If you could change something about it what would you change?" She talked to Derrick, Tyrone, JP and a half-dozen others -- children whose abilities ranged from the gifted to those who can barely read.
"It is a school of excellence," said Jonquil Patterson, a 12-year-old seventh-grader. "But it is not a formal school where you sit and learn." Patterson, who is called JP, said teachers allow their pupils to ask more questions than in most schools and to challenge their ideas.
Morris was one of nine city school board members and other school administrators assigned to shadow a principal yesterday to find out more about the schools they help run and obstacles principals face. The activity was part of American Education Week, when schools across the country are opened to the public.
In a couple of hours, Morris had confirmed her impression of Stadium School, the charter school founded in 1994 by a group of parents concerned that their children would be swallowed by the city's large middle schools. The school has 125 pupils in grades four through eight.
"There is a climate of community here that you might not see at our large middle schools," Morris said. "There is a calmness here. There is a seriousness here, but not a hostile feeling."
Jerry Levin, the director/teacher or principal, was happy for the opportunity to lobby Morris for support. The school board and his school have been at odds at times. The school, promised a home of its own, is in a school system building on Northern Parkway used as a training center and administrative offices, but its pupils live in the Waverly and Ednor Gardens areas near Memorial Stadium.
"We have been fighting for our life," Levin said. "The basis of our program was that we were a community school, but we have been taken out of our community."
Levin wanted Morris to see the endless amounts of paper that he gets in his mailbox each morning, orders from above that seem to cover his desk. He wanted her to witness how violence from the street can affect pupils, even in his small school.
Last weekend, he said, one of his pupils participated in the beating of a student who doesn't attend Stadium School. He suspended the pupil and began talking with others who had witnessed it or were upset by it.
For Morris, a former teacher and dean of education at Morgan State University, visiting classrooms is fun. She talked with middle-schoolers about their favorite football team, she let them read to her and she asked them what they wanted to do after high school and college.
The kids had some advice for improving their school. They would get rid of their uniforms or change the color from yellow and black to blue and white. And they would like to see Levin work toward building a better reputation for the school in the community.
People think of Roland Park Elementary and Middle School as one of the good schools, they said, but they don't think of Stadium School.
The school has class sizes of 13 or 14 children, about half the size of many middle school classes. And the teachers have set high expectations. Sixth- and seventh-grade math pupils are doing more-complicated math problems than some ninth-graders in other city schools.
Morris was glad to see that pupils are comfortable chatting with strangers -- a sign, she said, that they were relaxed and not worried about chaos or violence.
Even a sixth-grader who stumbled reading a first-grade text had not lost his self-esteem, she noted, and has the chance to learn to read well. In a big middle school, he might be lost.
She said the city needs more schools like Stadium School.