Middle school seen as field of dreams

Hope: Parents push for middle school to raise student achievement and the city's quality of life.

May 19, 2002|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,SUN STAFF

THE QUALITY of a neighborhood is often shaped by its schools. The value of a house may be determined not just by space and attractiveness, but also by the quality of teaching in the classrooms around the corner.

And so it was when the parents of Mount Washington Elementary pupils went before the city school board last week to plead for a new building to house a middle school. It wasn't just the middle school they wanted. They were seeking a way to make city living viable.

The school board went out on a limb, voting to begin the planning and design of an addition to the elementary school that would house grades six through eight, even without the approval from state officials. Next fall, a portable classroom will be brought in for the school's first sixth-grade class.

The decision by the school board was not easy. It meant defying the state's school construction chief, Yale Stenzler, who had turned down their request, saying there aren't enough students to justify the cost of a new school.

But that is just the point, parents argued. Without a good middle school, families will decide to move to the county for better schools or turn to the private or parochial schools to educate their children.

The state doesn't "look at what I call `the field of dreams.' If you build it, they will come," said Mark Smolarz, the city school's chief operating officer.

Mount Washington's parents are not alone in the city. Many middle-class families -- who have the choice about where they live and where their children will be educated -- sit down and look at the educational landscape and find that city middle schools are a wasteland.

They may have a good neighborhood elementary school in their community and they may be able to visualize their children 10 years older at one of the city's premier high schools -- Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Western High School, City College and the School for the Arts. But when they see their young children on the verge of an awkward adolescence, they cringe at the options in front of them. Many parents and educators agree there are very few middle schools -- including Roland Park Elementary/Middle in north Baltimore and Mount Royal Elementary/Middle in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Bolton Hill -- that parents would consider good schools.

"I feel personally, that Baltimore city has some wonderful high schools and we were looking at a way to bridge that gap," said George Lewis, who has a third-grader at Mount Washington. He is an architect and has studied how the school could be expanded.

Although little hard data exists, educators believe some families leave the city when their children get to middle school age rather than face the prospect of sending them to a school with a thousand children, violent halls, large classes and young, inexperienced teachers.

The city school system is not unaware of the dire need to reform its middle schools. For years, many neighborhoods, particularly in middle class areas, have been clamoring for the city to expand their elementary school into facilities offering kindergarten through eighth grade.

The school board voted in February to turn more than a dozen schools into combined elementary and middle schools, keeping thousands of children out of large, impersonal schools and closer to home. Test scores show that students in those schools in the city tend to do better academically.

But a large percentage of students -- about 40 percent -- will still be zoned into the city's large middle schools. The students headed to those schools represent one of the school system's most pressing problems because they are likely to be better students than their older sisters and brothers.

Five years into a major reform of the city schools that focused on the elementary grades, things have improved. For the past three years, the average city scores on national standardized tests have risen in math and reading in every elementary grade. And last year, first-graders scored above the national average in reading -- the first time in the memory of even veteran city school teachers.

The school system has also begun trying to improve low-performing high schools, hoping to make them smaller and more rigorous. But there is only one way to get from elementary to high school.

Christopher N. Maher, education director at Advocates for Children and Youth, said the city must do far more to help its failing middle schools. "The middle schools are essentially the heart of the school system," he said.

Children go from a protective elementary school environment into a large middle school where they feel overwhelmed and unable to learn.

"I think that is where the system is losing the kids," he said. "The middle schools are not getting enough attention, and the reforms are not substantial enough to turn [them] around." Maher said.

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