School's independence bid poses questions for board

Mount Washington parents air concerns

March 06, 2001|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

Mount Washington Elementary School's quest for more independence has raised a nagging issue for the school system: How do you keep middle-class families happy with their schools?

Mount Washington's staff and parents are asking the city school board to let them become a "new school," a designation that would make them an independently run public school.

But unlike other such schools, Mount Washington has long been considered one of the city's best elementary schools. So why, school board members asked last week, does the Mount Washington community want out?

Parents say it is about a lack of choices. They say their teachers are locked into teaching a rigid curriculum, the school has no classes for gifted students and, most important, they have no good middle school to send their children to from Mount Washington.

With freedom, they say, will come opportunities for children and families that they hope will stem the loss of middle-class children from the school.

Another city school, Barclay Elementary and Middle, also is asking to become a new school. Barclay, which uses the curriculum of the private Calvert School, would be run by the Abell Foundation's Baltimore Curriculum Project.

Both proposals were brought to the school board by the new schools initiative advisory board. The board reviewed applications from nonprofit organizations, schools and teachers to create or take over eight schools. Only Mount Washington and Barclay were recommended.

School board members say they were surprised by the schools' requests and asked for more time to consider them.

Board member Sam Stringfield said that although he is likely to support the proposals, he wants to understand why these schools have decided they want to "opt out." Neither school wants to get rid of its principal or its staff.

He said he is concerned that by giving the go-ahead to these schools, the system would be giving two of its better schools a special status.

Five schools are designated as "new schools" in Baltimore, and board member C. William Struever said most of them are in some of the roughest neighborhoods in the city.

"We have precious few middle-class kids -- black or white -- in our system," he said. "I applaud the kind of courage and effort of those who want to do something about it."

For decades, middle-class families have turned to private or parochial schools or fled the city to put their children in county schools. Still, a few schools continued to attract middle-class students, among them Mount Washington.

But statistics show that without an acceptable alternative for middle school, more Mount Washington families are sending their children to private schools.

Last year, 47 children in the first through fourth grades left the school, which has 280 students. Mount Washington interviewed the families of children who left and found 36 went to private schools, seven to county public schools and four to other city schools.

Eighty-one percent of the students who left scored above the 80th percentile on standardized tests.

"We do have some wonderful public high schools in Baltimore. But the thing is middle school," said Margaret Gifford, a member of the Mount Washington Improvement Association and of a school steering committee looking at adding three middle school grades, six through eight.

"They just used to stop sending their kids in fifth grade. But more families are taking their kids out of school early to ensure them a place in a [private] school," she said.

Staff and parents also fought to keep a popular third-grade teacher, whom the system wanted to transfer to another school in the middle of the year. Mount Washington's enrollment had shrunk, and the system said that the school had more teachers than it needed. The teacher was allowed to stay.

A committee of parents and staff formed last year to consider whether it was possible to add sixth, seventh and eighth grades. The committee, which included two architects and a developer, reviewed the site and concluded space was available on the property to build a middle school.

Joshua Neiman, father of a kindergartner, said the committee first asked the school system for approval to operate a new combined elementary and middle school. On the recommendation of the school system, that plan has been scaled back, and parents and staff are asking that the existing school be made a new school.

Because the school system faces $600 million in repairs and renovations in the next few years, parents say, it is unlikely the school board would give them the money needed to add on to Mount Washington.

Their best shot, they say, might be to raise money on their own that could be matched by state funds for school construction.

"We want to be able to work outside of the boundaries that are placed on us by the school system," Neiman said. "We have a great school in Mount Washington, but we think we can make it better."

Parents say they would like to offer an interdisciplinary curriculum and supplement the current one. They say they find the curriculum rigid -- every second-grade teacher in the city is on nearly the same reading lesson on any given day. While that uniformity has helped in many schools, parents believe it seems constraining to students at Mount Washington.

The school board was expected to meet with a small group of parents and teachers from Mount Washington and Barclay before the next board meeting tomorrow. At that meeting, the board can vote on preliminary approval for the proposals.

Final approval would occur in May, after the schools have submitted more detailed plans on how the schools would be run.

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