A bold experiment in education

School: Day after day, idealism collides with reality at the new Baltimore Freedom Academy, but, for now, confidence reigns.

October 14, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

It's 8 a.m. on the first day of the new Baltimore Freedom Academy. The school's 105 pioneering ninth-graders will be arriving in minutes. The atmosphere is frenetic.

"We're having a baby today! One hundred of them!" Tisha Edwards, the head of school, gushes to a parent volunteer in the cramped office of the academy, which for now is meeting at Baltimore City Community College downtown.

For the next four years, Edwards, a woman with no background in education, will be momma to those babies.

But she'll also be the conductor of an exciting experiment. She'll work alongside 10 teachers, five faculty members and a team of local educators and idealists - all of whom have dared to dream of a better education for the city's children.

The academy is one of two independent public high schools approved by the city school system last year to provide choices for families seeking a high school education in a small, innovative setting.

Designed to emphasize law, leadership and social advocacy, the school has an overarching goal to turn the children into adults who will one day give back to their communities.

As the school year moves forward, The Sun will report on the trials and triumphs of the academy's teachers, staff and the ninth-graders.

Just six weeks into it, some parents say they've seen a positive difference in their teen-agers. But with every improvement comes a hurdle, showing all involved that dreaming of a new school was the easy part.

At least two students have already threatened to leave. The school's rigorous program had to be quickly modified to meet the needs of one-fourth of the freshman class who were working well below grade level. And at one point, administrators found themselves considering breaking rules to save some students from expulsion.

Day after day, idealism collides with reality. First-year teacher Amanda Brewer learned that in her second week.

On a Wednesday - by design, a loosely structured day at the academy - Brewer took her class to Barnes & Noble, a few blocks away at the Inner Harbor, for an hour of getting-to-know-you time. She was thrilled with the idea of being able to expand her classroom walls at a local bookstore and hoped to learn more about her students' tastes in reading: Which of the boys preferred science-fiction to hip-hop magazines? How many of the girls would gravitate to the romance section?

"They can see how fun reading can be," Brewer mused as they walked along the harbor. "And they can see other people here modeling lifelong learning."

But once inside, the ninth-graders glided past the rows of literature.

Like homing pigeons, they set their sights on the CDs at the back of the building. In seconds, they'd each donned headphones and before Brewer could say Dewey Decimal System, all you could hear was the under-the-breath wailing of 10 tone-deaf Baltimore Freedom Academy freshmen.

"Ooooh, baby. Why you gotta look so good?"

Small lessons like this, and perhaps much larger ones, may lie ahead. But, for now, confidence reigns.

"This is a new picture in an old world," said volunteer Kaaren Bowen, whose granddaughter Shavaughna is a freshman. "My theory is that it's a long curve right now. It's going to be a rocky road. And six months from now, everyone will look back and laugh."

Edwards, 32, is optimistic. She relishes the challenges that starting a new school present, believing her whole life has been a dress rehearsal for this job as educator, nurturer and disciplinarian.

"I really feel that this is what God wants me to do," she said. "And I truly believe he works through me."

A former Mississippi resident with three professional degrees, Edwards is a small woman, maybe 5 feet 1 in heels. But her presence is large.

It was Edwards' charisma that sold many of the parents on the school, despite the fact that it has no track record, no test scores, no traditions - not even a permanent building.

Nearly 600 applicants

The academy received close to 600 applications and selected 105 by random lottery.

"Just listening to Ms. Edwards talk, that's what did it," said Quinta O'Cain's mother, Rhonda Brooks. "When I came to orientation, she motivated me. I knew this was the right school."

On opening day, Edwards worked that magic again.

Standing in front of the students in an auditorium, she welcomed them with information, motivation and stern warnings wrapped inside a sugary drawl.

"I have to make a confession, I didn't sleep last night because I'm so excited," she said, gripping a microphone. Her 4-year-old son started preschool that day, but Edwards wasn't there. "I missed going to his first day of school so that I could be here for your first day of school. So that says a lot about how much I care about you."

She went on to tell them she expects greatness from them every day, both academically and socially. She called them the leaders of Baltimore.

But Edwards also reminded the students that they have obligations, that the alternative to the academy is their low-performing neighborhood high schools.

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