Empowering young minds

Celebration: Song, dance and marching mark the grand opening of a West Baltimore school striving to be innovative.

November 12, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Two marching bands clanged through the city streets. Dancers high-stepped. A jubilant choir sang. Dignitaries gathered 'round, and when the guests of honor arrived, a beaming crowd rose and applauded -- long and hard.

It wasn't the Super Bowl-winning Ravens, or a victorious politician on Election Night. These celebrities were elementary school children -- with sagging uniform sweaters and snaggleteeth -- who were helping last week to show off their new primary school, the Empowerment Academy.

The school, in the old Lafayette Elementary School building on Braddish Avenue in West Baltimore, is the system's 11th in the New Schools Initiative. With 82 pupils from pre-kindergarten through second grade enrolled, the school will add a class each year up to the eighth grade.

The celebratory tone Nov. 5 was meant to be more than a party, school leaders said. They want the experience of being at Empowerment Academy to be an event as joyous as the circus coming to town, and they hope the small scholars there will feel as important as movie stars.

"This is a very, very sensitive age," said Principal Marilyn Jackson. "We know that what we plant in them now will go with them for years. We want them to love education and also love their school."

That is why the academy's teachers won't use "spirit-crushing" symbols of failure, such as zeros, when children perform poorly on classwork or tests, school leaders said.

"Instead, we might say, `Try again,' " Jackson said.

The school opened this fall with far less fanfare. But at the official grand opening Nov. 5, the mood was as festive as a homecoming parade.

Marching bands from Morgan State University and Edmondson/Westside High School performed outside the school, shimmying and strutting to a rhythmic beat. Bonnie S. Copeland, the system's interim chief executive officer, and school board members clapped and cheered.

The academy's pupils loudly counted down to a 10 a.m. ribbon-cutting -- and songs, poetry and dance filled the auditorium all morning.

"All schools should have grand openings like this," said Laura Weeldreyer, coordinator of New Schools Initiative, a program that provides for schools run by nonprofit organizations but publicly funded. The Empowerment Academy is operated by the Empowerment Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church.

One requirement among schools in the New Schools program is that they be innovative said Dolores Winston, the chairwoman of the committee that developed the Empowerment Academy concept more than a year ago.

That's why the school is focused on "literacy through the arts," she said.

"We thought if we integrated the arts through all the subject areas, certainly our children would be able to grow, not only academically, but creatively as well," Winston said.

Visual and performing arts are a major focus in the school. In one classroom, nicknamed "The Village," pupils learn the art of storytelling through dance, music and improvisation.

The room is decorated to look more like a cozy den than a classroom. Colorful tapestries from Kenya, called kangas, hang from windows. Draperies from India cover the chalkboards. Corners are accented with Japanese fans or Chinese dolls.

"They need to know we're more than just Baltimore. We're more than just the children in the city," said theater arts teacher Maria Broom, who is on loan to the academy from the Baltimore School for the Arts. "There are so many people around the world who dress differently than they do, sing differently, dance differently."

One school goal, principal Jackson said, is to have the graduating eighth-graders ready to move on to the School for the Arts, which requires children to audition to gain entrance.

At the grand opening, many children, in song and dance, were showing off what they are being taught.

We learn to read

We learn about the world

We learn how to treat others

One song expressed what many parents said they hope will prove true for their children at the new school:

The children sang:

I am the best I can be

I am the best I can be

I am the best I can be at Empowerment Academy

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