IT WAS pretty much a soft sell when Cornell Dews invited me to speak to students at Furman L. Templeton Elementary School, which is better known in the West Baltimore community where it has existed for decades as P.S. 125.
"Since [P.S.] 125 is the very first school I ever attended," I wrote Dews in an e-mail, "I'll be happy to."
And it was nice to be back at the school I hadn't set foot in since 1956, the year I entered kindergarten. When Dews told me that Furman Templeton had a choir that would be going on a tour in May, that was a soft sell, too.
But before I get to the choir, perhaps I should tell you a little bit more about Furman Templeton. It has, to say the least, changed quite a bit from the school I attended nearly 50 years ago.
Oh, it still sits at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Dolphin Street, as it did when I went there. But the school is located on both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue now. Cars and buses drive under an overhead hallway that connects the two portions of Furman Templeton.
Dews teaches an all-boys third-grade class. I'm sure those weren't around when I was at Templeton. But this is no ordinary third-grade class. Dews also teaches his boys chess. Some of them placed in a recent citywide tournament. When I played one of them in a game, the others gathered around in pin-drop silence to observe.
The school is operated by Edison Schools Inc., which has a contract to run it and Gilmor and Montebello elementary schools through 2007. Edison took over those schools in July 2000 when they were failing. A February story in The Sun reported that state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick said all three schools had improved their academic performance since Edison took over.
If Hollie Hood-Mincey has her way, that improvement will continue, and music will be the catalyst.
"Students who perform in musical activities do better academically," Hood-Mincey, a vocal music teacher, said last week, just before she started a rehearsal for the school's choir. Hood-Mincey believes her assertion so much that she's made it the thesis of her doctoral dissertation. She doesn't just believe it. She said she's seen it happen, in the 10 years when she had a choir at Villa Maria School in Timonium.
"It was very successful," Hood-Mincey said of Villa Maria's choir, which had some special-needs pupils in it. She noticed that focusing on music helped even special-needs pupils to be "on task."
Her work with Templeton's pupils may be just as challenging.
"Some of these kids take care of their brothers and sisters and their drug-addicted parents," Hood-Mincey said. "Some of them live in houses that should be condemned."
Hood-Mincey started the choir at Furman Templeton in August. The link between music and academic achievement was one reason. But there was one even simpler.
"Because children like to sing," she said. Ponder that for a second. Do any of you know of any child, from age zero to about 10 or 11, who doesn't consider himself or herself major song and dance talent?
"They're very talented," Hood-Mincey said of the pupils in Templeton's choir, "but they've never had a chorus here."
Not only does Templeton now have a chorus, but the school has one that folks in other places will know about. Starting May 16, Templeton's choir - along with the school's African Hand Drum Ensemble and Royal Theater Dance Troupe - will hit the road for a tour of cities in the Northeast. Their first stop will be Wilmington, Del., where they will perform at a school and church May 17.
The next day they will be in Philadelphia, performing at another school. On May 19, they will perform at a second school in Philadelphia before heading to Buffalo, N.Y., where they will perform for a school and church May 20. To cap off their tour, Templeton pupils will make a stop in New York City for some shopping.
Raising the $18,000 for such a tour hasn't been easy. Hood-Mincey said that $2,500 has been raised so far, with the school holding various fund-raisers - like raffles and candy store sales - to get the rest. She hopes Templeton's auditorium is filled this Wednesday and Thursday for the choir's spring concert. At $3 a pop, the ticket prices shouldn't be prohibitive for community members. And while a sold-out house in Templeton's auditorium won't bring $15,500, the money raised won't hurt, either.
Anybody wishing to donate money to Templeton so that about 70 kids in grades three through six will get their first chance ever to see someplace other than their own neighborhood should call the school at 410-462-9560 and ask to speak to either Hollie Hood-Mincey or Principal Evelyn Randall, who, like Hood-Mincey, stressed the importance of music in the curriculum.
"These cultural things - the arts - are just as important as reading and math," Randall said. "This [tour] is for many of our children a new experience: to be away from home. Everybody going has earned the right to be there through good grades, good behavior and following school policy."