Severna Park school honor is communal effort

Jones Elementary success a parent, community goal

Anne Arundel

September 29, 2003|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

In 90 years, a lot of things have changed at Jones Elementary School.

It has evolved from a one-room wooden schoolhouse heated by a coal stove to a modern building with more than 300 pupils.

It has gone from having an all-black student body to one that is nearly all white.

But over the years, the Severna Park school has remained a place where children are nurtured and a large number of parents volunteer their time, longtime members of the Anne Arundel County community say.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education gave the Severna Park school its highest honor - the national Blue Ribbon - for its steady, top-tier performance on state math and reading tests. With four other schools in the state, Jones is in a class of schools held up as "national models of excellence."

To many in the community, it wasn't a surprise that the school received the honor.

"To me, it just seems overdue," said Barbara Sause, who has a son in the fourth grade and is among more than 100 parents who volunteer at the school and run dozens of enrichment programs, including art appreciation, Spanish and chess.

Sause and others say the school is successful not only because of its small size and hardworking teachers, but because it has a strong community backing that dates to the early 1900s, in the era of segregation.

"During the day, you can find 15 parents working in the school at any given time," said Principal Diane Bragdon.

Third-grade teacher Benita Furman, who has taught at Jones for more than 30 years, said she is so used to seeing parents around the school that it doesn't strike her as unusual. Volunteer sign-ups have begun, and Furman soon will have a parent helping in her classroom nearly every day.

Eight-year-old Meghan Aldrich, a pupil in Furman's class, said she sees her classmates' parents at school all the time, reading to classes, preparing the school for special events or spending time with their children. "Today, Jayme's mom came in," Meghan said, referring to her friend Jayme Windsor. "She just had lunch with her."

The local community was as intimately tied to the school when it was a converted wooden house with no running water.

Irene Johnson, who graduated from Jones Elementary in 1940, said the school was a center of activity for the African-American community, which held May Day celebrations and Friday night spaghetti dinners there.

"It was just like the church," said Johnson, 75, whose grandfather deeded the land on which the school is built to the county Board of Education for $10.

One of her daughters, Theresa Williams, recently retired as a county principal. Williams, who attended Jones in the segregated 1950s and started her teaching career there in the integrated 1970s, said the school has always elicited a feeling of closeness. "Everybody knew everyone, and so everyone looked out for everyone else," she said.

Today, staff members still know children by name and can match them to their parents.

Prospective residents who ask about the school are told that it is one of the best-kept secrets in the county. "I didn't really know what that meant until I got here," said Sause, who moved from Arlington, Va.

Although the neighborhood around Jones Elementary is still home to a substantial African-American population, most of the black residents are older and do not have school-age children. The pupils mostly live in surrounding well-to-do white communities.

But that hasn't stopped those older residents from taking an interest. In the first weeks after she became principal last year, Bragdon received several visits from residents and leaders of Wayman Good Hope African Methodist Episcopal Church across the street.

"They stopped by to share their knowledge of the school," Bragdon said. "Many of them didn't have family members that go here, but they still wanted to maintain a connection."

Bragdon said she wants to help preserve the community and the school's rich history, and is compiling memories from former pupils and teachers. She also plans to revive the spaghetti-dinner tradition.

"It's hard to sum it up, but that's what makes this place a Blue Ribbon school," she said.

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