School strives for new mind-set

October 08, 2004|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THAT DAY on 36th Street in Hampden, Eric Rice sent exclamation points flying through the air. Grabbing strangers, handing out literature, he was telling the immediate world about this new high school for kids who traditionally equate teachers and classrooms with root canal surgery.

He talked about 65 percent dropout rates as he handed out leaflets. He mentioned field trips to graveyards and classroom work at the zoo and kids who have never ventured beyond the borders of their neighborhood. Then he pointed down 36th Street, toward this portable building across the parking lot from Robert Poole Middle School. Maybe, he was saying, the future was arriving there.

This was last month, when the new place, the Community Learning for Life Program, had just opened its doors. It comes out of a historic crossroads. On 36th Street that day, Hampden was celebrating its annual community festival. The neighborhood's a grainy snapshot of old Bawlamer itself: working-class families, people who call each other "hon" by reflex, the beehive hairdo making its last proud stand.

But it's a place - like too many others in Baltimore - where education has historically been sloughed off. Generations in Hampden found work in the local mills. Who needed a diploma when there were manufacturing jobs paying decent wages right down the hill? A mind-set was passed through the years: School is optional.

But the world is a more demanding place now. Last year, the Hampden Community Council, looking at the neighborhood's 65 percent dropout rate, began formulating plans for a school that could hold onto at-risk youngsters. After a few false starts, they managed to get public school officials involved. Then they brought in two educators, Rice and Liz Baker, to lead the effort.

What kind of effort? Here's a clue: When you walk through the front doors of the new place, there's a sign in the hallway: "Don't Let Schools Interfere with Your Education."

Got it? This isn't school the way we remember it. You could stand in a hallway yesterday, and there's a teacher telling a kid, "You want to work on the computer for a while or go outside to gym?"

"Computer," the kid says without hesitation.

Excuse me?

You walk into a classroom, and a blackboard shows a long list of forthcoming projects: a trip to the Rosewood Center, Streetworks Under the City, the Dynamics of Remote Control Cars. You sit with a teacher, Helen Atkinson, and listen to her remarkable words.

"They come here," she says, "and we have to de-school them."

Translation: They have to undo a mind-set established over years of sitting at desks in classrooms, of learning mainly from textbooks, of environments so controlled that they sometimes induce kids to look for escape routes.

"This is not for everyone," Atkinson said. "Some kids need structure. If they don't want to take some initiative and don't take some nudging from teachers and don't have the emotional stamina, it won't work for them. We're trying something different - making connections between the real world and school.

"Let's face it, there are students who come to school, and their eyes glaze over. You mention the word `math,' and they go into tremors. But here, we hook them on a project and hook academics into the project."

Example: Atkinson sent her students up to the little cemetery at St. Mary's Church on Roland Avenue. They copied the life spans of the deceased off the headstones. Most of these people worked in the mills. They compared the life spans by decades. Thus, lessons were learned in math and in history.

Example: Field trips on the light rail system. Students wrote the names of stops. Some thought it was kindergarten work. But then they worked out timetables, planning schedules. The trips became an algebra lesson.

"Experiential learning," says Atkinson. "Balancing responsibility with freedom. Getting all the required credits for graduation - but connecting it with the real world."

There are 42 students there now, with three full-time teachers and a part-time art instructor. Students are drawn not only from Hampden, but Remington, North Avenue and the lower end of Charles Village.

"For some of these kids," said Atkinson, "it's the last stop. Some of them are special education kids. Some are just kids who found traditional classrooms stifling."

"What's going on here," said teacher Cranston Dize, "is thrilling. It's going to change the expectations that the school system had for these kids - and vice versa. It's going to change expectations of class and race that nobody likes to address. We're determined to reach these kids in a way that nobody's ever reached them."

"Our aim," added Eric Rice, "is a school that's economically and racially diverse. You know, this neighborhood's changing. You walk around, you see it. Kids pushing their own babies in carriages when they should be in school. But there are also so many new people moving in, and real estate values rising. It has to do with shops and restaurants on 36th Street, and artists who have discovered the old warehouse spaces and mills and turned them into studios.

"It's a healthy diversity. But we want these young people to succeed in it. For a lot of kids, it's not a matter of intellect, but of what they expect from school, and what they'll contribute to it. We're trying to retrain them to say: `I can play a role in my education. There are things worth learning, and I can play a hand. I have the intelligence to do it.'"

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