School offers a lesson in suburban diversity

Pikesville Middle: The future of Baltimore County and similar districts may hinge on such schools, which have maintained achievement amid racial and economic changes.

April 28, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Barbara Walker grabs her walkie-talkie and races out to her post at the intersection of the guidance office and the technology wing. No bells tell her it's time for the latest class change at Pikesville Middle School - only the growing thunder of voices as 1,100 pupils wend their way from sixth period to seventh.

The principal holds out her arms and funnels her charges this way and that. They come in so many shapes and sizes, middle-schoolers do. They come from half-million-dollar homes and from federally subsidized housing. They are black and white and Asian and Indian, but mostly black and white. A nearly even mix of those two races marches down the halls of what was once a predominantly white, Jewish school. And every mouth is moving.

"My school is a microcosm of what the world is going to look like when these students graduate from college," Walker is saying. "It's a wonderful blend of races, religions, socioeconomic strata. There's an amazing energy when you bring diverse people together."

With that diversity come real questions about the future of not just Pikesville but of schools in Baltimore County and suburban America.

More black families are coming to the county in search of the American Dream - stable neighborhoods, economic security, good schools, freedom from fear of crime. What they are finding is a school system that hasn't proved it can teach their children.

Too frequently, the worst-performing schools are in the corners of the community with the most black students. Even middle-class black students trail their white classmates academically across the county and the nation.

But at Pikesville, a dynamic principal has helped to keep academic achievement high amid demographic change. Still, that success may be fragile: Well-to-do parents won't hesitate to send their children elsewhere if they think the school's quality is slipping.

The future of the county's schools may hang on whether Pikesville - and schools like it - stay on top.

"People are in denial, refusing to believe the world has changed," said demographer Dunbar Brooks, who was the county's first black school board president and is a new member of the state school board.

"African-Americans moved to the county for better housing, safer environment, better schools - the same things white folks want. For all those things that they moved to the county for, if the county doesn't [adjust to that], the whole thing was a hoax."

Suburban America is starting to look more like the cities it thought it left behind - racially diverse with pockets of poverty and social instability.

"Schools are a powerful predictor of the future of the community," said Myron Orfield, executive director of the Minnesota-based nonprofit Metropolitan Area Research Corp. "The same thing is happening in the interior of Baltimore County that happened in Baltimore City a generation ago."

County school officials going back to the 1970s talked about the changes headed their way. Yet little has been done to answer the challenges diversity is bringing, observers say.

"Inaction is as bad or worse than reckless action," said attorney Sanford V. Teplitzky, a county school board member since 1993. "We've had inaction, and it's not getting any better. It's time to do something.

"Let us stop dealing with $15,000 roofing contracts and look at the issues that have an impact in the lives that have been entrusted to us."

Keeping a balance

Pikesville Middle is a low-slung brick building not a mile from the city line. It was built in the 1960s, and each hall is painted a color of the rainbow - a key to navigating a blocky building that can be a maze to anyone over the age of 14.

To the west of Pikesville are the communities with the county's highest concentrations of minority students - and many of its lowest-performing schools. To the east stand some of the county's most comfortable middle-class white neighborhoods - and many of the stars of the school system.

This year, for the first time, African-American pupils make up half of Pikesville Middle's student body. The next wave through - the sixth grade - has even more black pupils.

Academically, Pikesville is succeeding, though its black pupils lag behind.

Its overall scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests, or MSPAP, dropped last year, mirroring the county's and state's. But its reading scores put it second only to high-flying, high-income Hereford Middle among county middle schools. Pikesville was just ahead of Sudbrook Magnet Middle, which enrolls some pupils who might otherwise be among Pikesville's best.

Pikesville is doing well, but sometimes the thinking there is that's not enough. The school holds open houses in the fall to show off for the parents of fourth-, fifth- and even a few third-graders.

It's unspoken, but these open houses are primarily meant to persuade white parents not to send their kids to private school.

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