A magnet for success

School: Pupils compete to get accepted by Pikesville's Sudbrook Magnet Middle, which has some of the highest MSPAP scores in Baltimore County.

February 19, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Somewhere a phone is ringing - maybe it belongs to a school board member or a state legislator or a lawyer. Calling is a parent who got the news this month that his child didn't get a coveted slot at Sudbrook Magnet Middle School, a parent who desperately wants someone to reverse that decision.

Principal Mary E. Heine has heard all the stories, all the pleading. The wildest one, she said, is that of the woman who had her daughter repeat fifth grade after she was rejected so that she could reapply to Sudbrook the next year. It worked.

In the early 1980s, enrollment at the Pikesville school sank so low that it was closed for more than a decade. Now, the word is passed from parent to parent on the west side of Baltimore County that if you want your child to go to public school, there are few choices beyond Sudbrook.

"Obviously, it took hold; it took hold immediately," said Donna Flynn, principal of the Sudbrook magnet when it opened in 1994. "It obviously filled a big need."

The brainchild of Stuart Berger, the oft-maligned former superintendent of schools, Sudbrook was the first school of its kind in Baltimore County, a magnet school drawing pupils from a wide area to its specialized programs. Other magnet programs followed, but Sudbrook remains the only schoolwide magnet for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.

Nearly 1,000 pupils attend, nearly evenly divided between black and white children who would have otherwise attended schools from Arbutus to Woodlawn. Some of those schools are in the top third in the county, and others are at the bottom.

They enroll in one of four disciplines: visual arts, performing arts, foreign language and computer applications in math and science. They take intensive classes combining English with social studies, science with math.

In four of the past five years, Sudbrook has scored higher than any other middle school in Baltimore County on the state's annual MSPAP tests.

"There are so many areas we can study, and you wouldn't get that in a regular middle school," said Evan Lambert, an eighth-grader taking Japanese. "You can specialize ... in what your interests are, and that's really nice."

Assistant Principal Lynn G. Ash said, "The children are here because they want to be here. Their parents are very involved. It's that combination of school and home."

Though no one disputes Sudbrook's success, some worry about what it does to the schools from which it draws the best and brightest students.

"I had always felt Sudbrook was kind of a brain drain, pulling the cream of the crop from the other schools," said Elaine Conley, whose son is a Sudbrook alumnus and whose daughter is an eighth-grader there. "If parents were aware ... they were pretty gung-ho about it."

Flynn, now the school system's executive director for assessment and student data, said that when the first class to spend three years at Sudbrook graduated from high school last year, members were valedictorians at Carver, Catonsville, Owings Mills and other schools.

In the year before the Sudbrook magnet school opened, Flynn traveled from elementary school to elementary school to sell the new concept to parents. She and Berger figured the school would open with about 400 pupils. She didn't think interest would be high right away. Sudbrook got 1,300 applications that first year.

"There was a group of people who really took a risk by sending their sixth-graders into a school with no history and no track record," she said. "We only had promises to make. They were really pioneers."

Conley was a fan from the start. She tried to persuade everyone she knew to apply to the new school. The second year, when her son Chris was applying, there wasn't room. He didn't get in until after appeals and "letter writing and persistence," she recalled.

Before Mary Heine became assistant principal at Sudbrook four years ago, she spent the first 27 years of her career as a music teacher at county elementary, middle and high schools. She recalls that on her first day, she attended a convocation with high-quality performances and terrific behavior.

"I said, `I just died and went to heaven. I can't believe a place like this exists,'" said Heine, who is in her second year as principal.

Sudbrook pupils wear uniforms: plain pants, fingertip-length skirts and polo shirts with no label except Sudbrook's.

The halls are often filled with so much artwork by pupils that it looks like a gallery.

In the broadcast studio, where the anchor boys sit with graphics over their shoulders and the weather girl keeps mouthing "Aberdeen" so that she doesn't flub it during the forecast, pupils produce the morning announcements.

In the auditorium, professional-looking sets are being set up for a springtime performance of Guys and Dolls.

"We've outdone anything I did [as a teacher] at high school," said drama teacher Garry Tiller. "It's amazing. They're very competitive, just top-notch all the way around."

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