Suburban shift hurts a school

City Diary


THERE ARE many reasons families move to Mount Washington.

Among them are leafy yards where benign neglect allows children to tunnel through a tangle of vines to build a fortress, a community swimming pool where neighbors of every shape and size laze in the sun with their cell phones while children play shark, and a neighborhood school.

Touted as one the city's top schools, Mount Washington Elementary was a major draw for my husband and me when we moved here from Butcher's Hill seven-and-a-half years ago.

When our oldest son began first grade in 1997, the school was one of a dying breed in middle-class neighborhoods.

Students could walk to it and get a solid education in community and diversity as well as reading, writing and arithmetic. It met our desire for a public education for our three sons, and I readily embraced the volunteer spirit that thrived among parents and seemed to ensure the school's future.

But what we have cherished in Mount Washington we now risk losing as our neighbors pull their children out to enroll them in private schools in unprecedented numbers.

Others in our community are scrambling across the county line in hopes of ensuring their children's education. Last year, 47 students left our school before finishing fifth grade -- including 36 of them headed for private schools and seven others off to county public schools, according to school records.

I missed their friendly little faces when school doors swung open last fall.

Gone were many of the kids in my Wednesday reading group, the champions of the Chess Club I had helped to resurrect and the children who sat on the yellow bus with my boys.

I missed their parents, too, many of whom enriched all of our children by volunteering in the classroom.

What this trend over the last three years has brought about is that, today, less than 40 percent of the 280 students who attend our school live in Mount Washington. While I welcome students from other communities now zoned to our school -- they are my children's friends, too -- I am saddened at the loss of our neighborhood children.

One does not have to look further than school headquarters on North Avenue to find a culprit and understand the school's bid for independence.

For years, the Parent-Teacher Organization has successfully struggled to raise money to ensure that our children have art, music and other so-called resources. But we have not been as fortunate in finding enrichment during the school day for our gifted and talented since the Baltimore City Public School System dropped this program in Mount Washington in 1993.

Instead, the school system has adopted an increasingly rigid stance toward curriculum that requires teachers citywide to teach the same material on the same day, regardless of their students' needs or talents.

This one-size-fits-all approach inevitably leaves many children without their needs being met.

At our school, too often it has been the high achievers who lose. The majority of the children who left the school last year scored above the 80th percentile on standardized tests.

Also at issue in our community is the lack of an acceptable alternative for middle school in the Baltimore public schools if your children are not among the fortunate ones who qualify for the Ingenuity or advanced academic pro- grams.

Led by a new dynamic principal, a cadre of parents committed to public education joined by a dedicated and talented teaching staff has responded by drawing up a proposal to confer "new school" status on Mount Washington Elementary.

This would give our school independence from the city school system in the areas of curriculum and assessment, governance, budget and staffing while we continue to explore the potential of becoming a K-8 school.

In the process, we hope to strengthen our neighborhood school so it is once again viewed by middle-class parents as a reason to move to -- rather than away from -- Mount Washington.

Today's writer

Joan Wisner-Carlson is a board member of the Mount Washington Elementary School Parent Teacher Organization and a free-lance writer.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues of concern to Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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