Family feels tie to school

Teachers: The goal of making a difference atLombard Middle School has been passed down from mother to daughter.

April 07, 2002|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

It would feel like an act of disloyalty to teach anywhere else.

Angie Gillespie was part of Baltimore's Lombard Middle School long before she started getting paychecks in 1993.

She tagged along to proms at the east-side school when it was still a junior high and light-blue suits were in style. She attended end-of-year fairs in the field across the street, where she'd eat cotton candy and suck on lemons with peppermint sticks. She trotted through what seemed then like unbearably long corridors, calling a couple of the teachers "Aunt" So-and-So, even though they were no relation.

All because of Lombard's other Gillespie, Ruth, who is Angie's mother. Ruth Gillespie has been at the school longer than her daughter, 32, has been alive.

The Gillespies believe in Lombard in a way that even the school system, until recently, has not. Long looked upon as a dumping ground, Lombard is in its first year of a three-year reform plan.

The Gillespies never gave in to the school's bad reputation. If they had, they wouldn't have spent a collective 42 years in the school's hallways and classrooms. If they had, they wouldn't mean it when they say they don't want to be anywhere else.

"I knew this is where I belonged," says Angie Gillespie. "Not just teaching, but this school."

Lombard's appeal isn't obvious. Kids don't aspire to go there; generally, neither do teachers. One of the first reactions Angie Gillespie says she gets when she tells people where she works is: "You are brave."

That's what earned the school a spot in the new "CEO's district." The designation brings more funding, extra support and higher expectations: Lombard is expected to raise test scores enough to be removed from the state's list of failures by 2004.

That, of course, is what the Gillespies want for the school, and they will be part of the team that determines whether it will happen.

But for them, Lombard is about more than just a new reform program. The Gillespies have insights into Lombard and the community it serves that can't be learned - or taught, for that matter - in a 36-month crash course. Some of Angie's pupils are the sons and daughters of people Angie's mother taught. Angie can usually recognize it in their faces, even before she knows their names.

Ruth, who is 58 and now oversees a team of special education teachers, has committed to stay at Lombard at least for the next two years. Angie intends to be there long after that.

"If I had a choice, I'm going to be there just like my mother. I'm going to be there forever, until I can't go anymore," she says.

Angie will continue to embrace the new literacy program, with its academic journals, shared reading and "word walls." For her, though, what goes on in Room 124, where she teaches language arts, begins with something much more basic.

"These children, the thing that they are fighting for is simply respect," she says.

Growing up with a teacher for a parent, Angie had school on her mind more than other kids. She even conjured up an imaginary teacher, "Miss Claris" - she doesn't know where she got the name - who called on her to read in front of the make-believe classroom. A play schoolhouse complete with a chalkboard and dolls filling in as fellow pupils helped set the scene.

"Good old Miss Claris," Angie says now. "I've been teaching and learning all my life, and now I'm really in that situation for real. I just knew when I started teaching that this is what I'm supposed to do in life."

She didn't know right away. Her mother didn't either.

"I always thought Angie was going to be in the corporate world," says Ruth Gillespie, who joined Lombard as a special education teacher in 1968 and has since held a string of positions. "I think I had some inkling, though. She was always motivating and hollering at our youngest daughter: `You gotta read!'"

The older of two sisters, Angie was raised in the middle-class Woodmoor section of Baltimore County, just inside the Beltway. She graduated in 1988 from Milford Mill High School, where she was in the honors program and worked on the school newspaper.

She started studying computer science at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland because she thought computers were the "wave of the future" and she'd be assured of getting a job. She ended up going with her gut, getting an English degree at Towson University because that's "what I'm good at."

By some standards, she then did the unthinkable: turned down a job offer from T. Rowe Price and enrolled in cosmetology school.

"I really, really, really thought that I wanted to do hair," she says.

Angie took classes full time at Gordon Phillips Beauty School during the day. At night, she worked at a travel agency.

Before the year was out, she would be working at Lombard.

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