A school of refuge for second chance

Alternative: At Mary E. Moss Academy in Anne Arundel, students get the opportunity to turn their lives around.

March 16, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Every morning, when the yellow school bus pulls up in front of the red-brick Mary E. Moss Academy and 45 sleepy high schoolers pile out, Principal Vanessa V. Bass greets every one.

She immediately knows what kind of day it will be. She measures their mood just by looking at them.

At Mary E. Moss -- an alternative high school where classes are small, teachers are dedicated and students often don't want to leave -- most days are good days, Bass said.

Problem is, word hasn't gotten out to the rest of Anne Arundel County.

"People told me it was haunted," said Chris Adams, 15, a freshman, referring to the Crownsville school's former use as part of a state psychiatric hospital. "And they said it was like jail."

Battling this negative perception has been one of the school's toughest assignments since opening five years ago. Educators have success at helping children -- once they persuade them to enroll.

Hundreds of teen-agers who struggle in large high schools could benefit from the personal attention and counseling Mary E. Moss provides, officials say. But this semester, 45 students are enrolled. The school can accommodate 65.

"Where are the children?" Bass asked. "I know they're out there."

Mary E. Moss is Anne Arundel's only alternative high school, a place of refuge for freshmen and sophomores who have academic and social problems at the county's 12 neighborhood high schools. Some of its students got in trouble for fighting. Others talked back to teachers. Many didn't go to class.

"I went to school," Adams said of his time at Meade High, largely spent in the cafeteria. "I just didn't go to class."

So they attend Mary E. Moss for a semester or a year, take classes that rarely exceed five students, and try to get their lives back on track.

Even as the school struggles to improve its reputation and fill its tiny classrooms, the school system is making plans for an expansion that could double its size -- and bring Anne Arundel more in line with other school systems.

Baltimore City as four alternative programs, Baltimore County has six, and Howard County will be opening an alternative learning center this fall with space for 230 students.

In Anne Arundel, interim schools Superintendent Kenneth P. Lawson plans to meet March 26 with County Executive Janet S. Owens to ask for space in a county-owned building next door to Mary E. Moss. The two-story building -- mostly used by the county for storage -- is the best hope for the school to expand so it can accept 11th-graders.

"While some part of the history of Crownsville needs to be dealt with," Lawson said, "if we can get [the building] cost-free, that's probably the best we can do in this economic climate."

Officials hope to overcome that history. For longtime county residents, the town is best known as home to the Crownsville Hospital Center, a state psychiatric hospital that has occupied a large campus off Interstate 97 for a century.

Mary E. Moss uses one of the hospital's old buildings, and many county residents can't see beyond that, said school board members.

"We've got students who need the services, we've got empty seats and we need to change that," board member Joseph Foster told Bass at a recent board meeting. "Mary E. Moss has a very negative public image. Don't frown. It does."

Foster and others are frustrated that the image persists at county high schools, most of which enroll about 2,000 students and lose some every year because of grades or disciplinary problems.

More of them need to be referred by the schools to Mary E. Moss, instead of being lost, officials said. Board members said it's their job to get the word out, and that Bass should focus on providing the services students need.

While many students are reluctant to attend Mary E. Moss, they can quickly change their minds once they arrive.

"On the street, people say it's a bad school, like you'll get beat up all the time," said Sean Kearney, a slight, freckled 14-year-old who was skipping classes and almost failing at South River High. "It's not what people say. I'm doing a whole lot better here. You get more individual help, and there are no distractions."

His largest class has five students. He's been at the school a month, but says he has made more progress than in a semester at South River.

Since arriving in December 2000, Bass has focused on upgrading facilities, hiring veteran teachers and creating a curriculum that allows students to keep pace with peers at bigger high schools.

She's also keenly aware of making students feel comfortable. For instance, she has banned round-robin reading -- in which kids take turns reading out loud in class -- because it embarrasses students who aren't good readers.

"After you develop trust, they'll talk to you," she said. "We have not had a fight since I've been in this building. Not one physical altercation, and I am tickled with that because we have fighters here."

For many students, the real challenge comes when they return to their neighborhood schools, to the big classes and choked hallways and pressures of friends.

"What I learn here, it'll stay with me," said Kearney. Other students also have had success in the transition, Bass and principals say. But to make sure, Bass wants to hire a full-time employee to do follow-up work. Little money is available, so some teachers do it on their own time -- another sign of their commitment, Bass said.

"Coming here is refreshing -- it's like a spa," she said. "This is a place where anybody can go and start over. The problem comes when I have to send the students back out."

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