Cooperation is the key at GreenMount

EDUCATION BEAT

Teaching: Parents, acting as "adjuncts," provide much of the instruction at this unusual private school in Baltimore.

February 22, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

WHEN I WIN the lottery and have my own school, it will look pretty much like the GreenMount School.

It's in the heart of Baltimore at the end of a quiet Remington street, adjacent to Wyman Park, the school's de facto playground.

It isn't big. It isn't fancy. Seventy-four kids in grades one through eight is about right. That way, everyone knows everyone else. Kids don't get lost in the shuffle. Perhaps, like GreenMount, I'll take over an abandoned city rec center, fix it up and put it to good use.

GreenMount is as diverse economically, racially and culturally as is humanly possible. Most of the students live in the city. Most of their parents are of limited means.

The school has a curriculum built around four themes each year. Right now it's 19th-century America. Art students are designing signs decrying childhood labor. Middle school kids are comparing schools of 2004 to those of 1860. One morning they go into the park and pretend they're on the Overland Trail in the mid-19th century, without the electronic gadgetry of the 21st. How do they have fun? They make up games.

The school is small enough that it can combine classes without overwhelming teachers. First- and second-graders are together, third- and fourth-graders, and so on. This way teachers can track kids for two years, get to know them intimately, get them immediate help when they falter academically.

Until the seventh grade, there are no standardized tests. Only then does the school give one test as a check against the outside world. Usually the kids test off the charts.

Here's the key to GreenMount's success: It's a cooperative. It has only four full-time teachers, one with a child in the school and one with a child recently graduated. Parents do much of the teaching as "adjuncts," and they do the work that makes the place run: serving hot pizza every Thursday, cleaning, painting, raising funds in the development office.

Every parent puts in 40 hours a year. "It's a requirement," says Michael Chalupa, the 30-year-old director known to everyone as "Mr. Mike." "When we do admissions interviews, we're as interested in the parents' attitudes as we are in the children's."

It's a requirement that keeps costs down. GreenMount's tuition is $4,625, a fraction of that of the city's mainline private schools.

I spent a couple of mornings at GreenMount recently and found myself transported to the "authentic learning" of the 1960s and 1970s, when Baltimore had an "experimental high school" with the ambiance of GreenMount. Everything is "hands-on." Every child and every adult has a "buddy." Adults trust kids, and vice versa, while teachers are free, within reason, to experiment.

Chalupa got the head job four years ago after answering an ad in The Sun. He says he was teaching at a private school in Olney but "looking for a place where there's lots of diversity and creativity in the way people teach, a place where it's more hands-on, less reliance on textbooks."

GreenMount, in its 11th year, was established by a group of city parents who felt "there was not very much happening in the public schools," says one of its founders, Lisa Stambolis. "We were sort of a group home school," she remembers. "We'd split two days in the basement of one home and two in the basement of the other. Parents did all of the teaching, and nobody got paid."

The school grew, moving to a church in Waverly and then to the old Wyman Park Recreation Center on West 30th Street.

When parents run a school, there are bound to be disagreements and setbacks. GreenMount has had lean years when the future looked bleak, but now there's a waiting list.

Work in the exciting field of big-city school operation

How ironic! In the midst of the city school budget crisis, the state Board of Education took out newspaper ads seeking candidates for the city Board of School Commissioners.

Assuming the current board remains intact -- a coalition of school groups has demanded the resignation of six of the nine members -- three terms expire this summer. Two are ineligible for reappointment. Members are chosen jointly by the mayor and the governor from a list presented by the state board.

First in the list of qualifications, according to the ad: "A high level of knowledge and expertise concerning the successful administration of a large business, nonprofit or governmental entity."

The ad doesn't say it, but the job pays nothing.

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