Lessons about learning

Academy: A new alternative education school helps pupils by focusing on what is keeping them from succeeding.

March 26, 2001|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Anthony Lee needed only to show up. If he did, he was pretty sure improving his grades would be easy.

The 14-year-old, who routinely cut classes, struck a deal with teacher Katherine Leslie. If the eighth-grader could arrive at school 20 minutes late, he promised to stay until the dismissal bell rang. The two shook on it.

"I could see the light in his eyes," said Leslie, a one-time high school dropout who has been teaching for nine years.

Leslie could make the deal because she teaches at an innovative new school in West Baltimore, the Baltimore Orioles Academy, where Anthony is a pupil.

The Orioles Academy, organized by the nonprofit organization Communities in Schools Inc., takes a different approach to helping children with problems in school. It focuses on the influences in pupils' homes, in their neighborhoods and within the children themselves that make them less likely to succeed academically and more likely to drop out of school.

Anthony was a perfect candidate. If he showed up late while attending Harlem Park Middle School in West Baltimore, he faced being slapped with detention. So he'd turn around and go home instead.

At the Orioles Academy, housed in a wing of Harlem Park, the educators thought a little give-and-take would make the difference with Anthony.

"Typically, if a student can't read, schools look for a reading tutor," said Elaine Fisher, director of Communities in Schools' Maryland office. "We try to find out why a student can't read and fix that."

Alternative programs aren't new. At present, about 2,900 Baltimore public school students have been taken out of mainstream schools and put in special classes, usually for disciplinary reasons.

What's different about this program, which started in February, is the intensity of private resources being aimed at the 50 seventh- and eighth-graders in the academy's first classes.

While their counterparts at Harlem Park meet in classes of 26 or more, Orioles Academy pupils are in classes of 12 or 13. They have teachers' aides in every room, and counselors are on hand at all times to deal with problems.

In the character education class, the teachers talk to the pupils about what's keeping them from succeeding. One boy says he has trouble walking to school on time, so the teachers say they'll look into getting him bus tickets. Another keeps getting out of his seat and disrupting the class, so they pair him with another pupil whose job will be to keep him in line.

"We're doing things on an individual basis, focusing on this one child, knowing what's going on in their home and bringing services in for that child," said academy Director Stephanie Lightfoot.

The school gets its name from a partnership with the Baltimore Orioles, which has pledged $50,000 a year to the school for its first three years. This is the first such school associated with a Major League Baseball team. Since 1997, Communities in Schools has helped start four academies across the country, each of them in partnership with a National Football League team.

The sports partnership doesn't have much effect on the day-to-day operations of the school. At other academies, the sponsoring teams have offered game tickets and field trips as incentives, and organizers say the children enjoy being "part of the team."

One benefit of the Orioles' partnership is the boost it gives to fund-raising efforts. Retailer Costco Wholesale Corp. is matching the teams' contributions at all of the sports academies, and Doug Danner, national director of the academies, said the association with sports has helped bring in other corporate funds.

Leslie said other alternative education settings she's worked in tended to be more punitive in orientation. To some extent, that's a matter of philosophy, but it's also a function of staffing, she said.

The cooperative style employed at the academy is possible because teachers, working with fewer pupils, can get to know individuals well and work with them extensively, she said.

After striking his deal, Anthony said he felt like Leslie had treated him with respect. He liked that and, a month later, he's attending school every day, Lightfoot said.

"There is a group of students who this is affecting," the director said. "There are some who were failing last semester and are passing this semester. Some are doing the same, but others are really making improvements."

Organizers hope to expand enrollment to 150 eventually. When the academy searched for pupils with the kinds of disciplinary problems that would make them candidates for enrollment, they found 450 eligible children at Harlem Park Middle School alone.

"A lot of other kids need this service, too," Leslie said.

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