An academic experiment stumbles amid successes

Setbacks: With small classes and an unconventional curriculum, a new school is shifting gears to overcome its growing pains.

Setbacks, successes at school

December 19, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

It was not a good day at the Baltimore Freedom Academy.

Head of School Tisha Edwards had gathered all 105 freshmen in the auditorium, in much the same way she had convened the inaugural class on the first day of school two months before.

But this tense October morning, Edwards didn't have an enthusiastic address prepared. Her opening day optimism had been pushed to its limits.

"Trust is not something that is given. It is earned," she said, glowering at the audience of lowered eyes and stern jaws. "Yesterday, you were all put to the test, and you all failed."

A group of boys had brought a BB gun to school and proudly showed it off throughout the day, disappointing and frustrating Edwards because no student reported the offense -- even after a classmate was accidentally shot.

To Edwards, the students who brought the gun as well as those who knew about it let the school community down by failing to meet an expectation that had been clearly communicated about accountability and responsibility.

The incident is just one of many growing pains the students, staff and administrators at Baltimore Freedom Academy have experienced since the school opened its doors this fall to 105 ninth-graders from across the city.

One of two independent, public high schools that opened this year to provide rigorous education in small, innovative settings, the Freedom Academy focuses on law, leadership and social advocacy -- and also emphasizes the values of community. The academy's founders sold their vision to parents desperate to get their children out of the city's troubled neighborhood high schools and to teachers who were eager to work in smaller settings and under better conditions.

Since the academy opened three months ago, there have been successes and setbacks:

One staff member quit. And seven students have left, three of them saying the school wasn't what they had expected. One said the school's leaders had reneged on promises made at orientation a year ago.

Administrators have had to institute a points-and-rewards system to encourage good behavior. But several students have been suspended. And recently, the school's top leaders met with the families of 15 unruly students, warning them about the consequences of the students' behavior.

Yet, the small school has capitalized on its ability to expand classroom walls for students. Many classes are held outdoors, and field trips are common. A trip to hunt for fossils in soft mud stone along the C&O Canal in Western Maryland proved to be a real victory for the school's two science teachers, looking for ways to get 100 teen-agers to care about sedimentary rock.

As the school year continues, the expectations of students, parents, teachers and school administrators have been challenged. Teachers and administrators have found themselves constantly re-evaluating how the school is run, how lessons are taught and whether their innovations are working across the board.

"I think that innovation will only work when we all have a very open mind," said government teacher Robin Marion, who taught for two years at Southwestern High School before applying to the academy. "At times, I myself have had trouble keeping an open mind when it comes to teaching my students. And at times, the students have had trouble keeping an open mind when it comes to what they're learning and how they're being taught."

The effectiveness of one teacher's unconventional style has been questioned by school leaders, particularly after a student -- who eventually left the school -- said he couldn't concentrate in that class.

The teacher, Paul Nestadt, says his style of teaching science -- friendly and with few rules -- will pay off in time.

"I'm not very structured," said Nestadt, a first-year teacher who developed much of his teaching philosophy from going to high school at the private Park School in Brooklandville. "I believe the most in giving kids responsibility over themselves and not giving them too many rules. This is a process. I think it'll be better in the future, mostly because by then, the kids will have understood what we're going for and will have bought in."

But for now, it is coming slowly.

After weeks of trying to convince students that their actions affect the entire school community, school leaders adopted a system with tangible rewards for good behavior.

The Community Incentive Program, as it is called, encourages students to consistently wear their gray-and-black uniforms, turn in homework and refrain from profanity, among other things. When 80 percent of the class is successful during a two-week period, the staff provides pizza parties or other rewards.

Staffers didn't want to have to put such a program in place but said doing so is not a setback.

"Building community is a journey," Edwards said, "... but I would hope that four years from now, that [program] doesn't have to exist."

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