Academies right for downtown

The Education Beat

Partnership: Proponents of using Port Discovery for city schools' business programs are pushing to make agreement official.

April 06, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

WHAT SOUNDED like a thunderclap interrupted my conversation Thursday afternoon with Kathleen Floyd, director of Baltimore school academies. She and I were chatting in her office on the ground floor of the downtown Port Discovery children's museum.

"Don't panic," said Floyd. "It's just the Egyptian exhibit above us." (Two or three kids get on what looks like a crate "and pull themselves across the Nile," she explained.)

These are strange space-sharers, the museum that draws 300,000 parents and children yearly and the three academies, part of the city school system, that for the past eight months have been educating 75 ninth-graders from around the city.

A lot of people, especially museum advocates, want the relationship formalized. A proposal that needs the approval of the state Board of Public Works and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick would have city schools renting 55,000 square feet of the city-owned museum building for $360,000 a year. That's a little more than $6 a square foot, a bargain rate for downtown space, say proponents.

That's as fishy as the Fishmarket that once stood on the spot, critics counter. It's a way of getting the taxpayers to bail out the struggling museum. An honest rental would be $1 a year.

I'll leave that argument to the politicians and developers. On the educational front, little has been said about the quality of the academy program at Port Discovery. The answer is that among the city's mediocre high schools (citywide schools excluded), the academies stand out. The oldest, the Academy of Finance, which has been based at Lake Clifton-Eastern High School and still teaches upperclassmen there, has an excellent 15-year track record, with a low dropout rate and a high college-going rate. Many graduates hold good jobs in Baltimore financial institutions.

Here's a brief picture: Seventy-five ninth-graders in academies of finance, hospitality and information technology are doing their academic work at Port Discovery. They're chosen competitively from middle schools around the city and commute by bus and light rail.

There's a "family" atmosphere at the school, Brittany Williams, 15, told me. She was wearing the academy uniform, khaki slacks and white shirt with a cool academy logo. (Wednesday, however, is "dress-up" day, when business attire is required.) Studies are rigorous, the students said, but they're already dreaming of professional lives in the city that is now their classroom. As they grow older, they'll be "shadowing" professionals and serving internships in banks and hotels just a few blocks from Port Discovery.

In February, the students took field trips to the Pratt library, Barnes & Noble, the Rash Field skating rink and the Civil War Museum. "Downtown is the best place for them," said Floyd, "away from the atmosphere of the zoned high schools. They give up something, but they gain more here. They're the future of downtown."

The huge irony is that the academies have been looking for years for a permanent home downtown and have been rebuffed by developers and civic leaders who hold stereotypical views of Baltimore teen-agers.

In fact, says Floyd, there's been no trouble with students during the academies' first year downtown. No report of a young academy man straying to the nearby Block. When the booze in Market Place bars really starts flowing, these kids are home with their books. During the day, they're a welcome addition to a bustling square that's safer than the neighborhoods of some city high schools.

The academies are models for the smaller high schools, schools-within-schools and other academies that schools chief Carmen V. Russo and others hope will transform secondary education. These academies belong downtown. If the Port Discovery deal is denied, it shouldn't be for educational reasons.

Selection of president a relief for Towson U.

The feeling of relief was palpable at Towson University on Thursday morning. After the Mark Perkins disaster, the $1.8 million Guilford mansion, the failure to land Robert L. Caret as president four months ago and the endless, secretive search, university officials nabbed Caret after all. They were eager to shed their reputation as the gang that couldn't shoot straight.

It seemed too good to be true: Unlike Perkins, his short-lived predecessor, Caret served 21 years at Towson and is well known across the state. Towson also enjoys much stronger support these days from the university system and governor. (Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., after all, has donated his papers to Towson, perhaps a tad prematurely.)

They all joked about the mansion. Caret said he'd rather live in a state-owned house than have a living allowance, his arrangement at San Jose State. When you own the house, he said, you have to worry about damage and guests spilling red wine on the carpet. He added, "I hope the neighbors of Guilford come to love me."

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