New film highlights city schools of choice

May 31, 2006

Geography might not be fate - although an old saying assures us it is - but it can be darned convenient at times.

Say, for instance, you work at a charter school in Baltimore, (which means you've boldly gone where few public schools in this town have gone before). Let's just say your address happens to be - and this is chosen completely at random (wink, wink) - 1398 Mount Royal Ave. Let's say further that you want a documentary done about your charter school and three others. What do you do?

Why, go right across the street to Maryland Institute College of Art, of course, and talk to the folks in its video department.

That's just what George Nilson, the board chairman at Midtown Academy - which by curious coincidence (wink, wink) is located at 1398 Mount Royal Ave. - did. He approached folks in MICA's video department about making a film with four Baltimore charter schools as the subject. And that's just why at 8 a.m. tomorrow, anyone who takes a notion to can go to Falvey Hall in the Brown Center at MICA to view the 20-minute film Public Schools of Choice: the Charter Schools of Maryland. Catherine Curran O'Malley, a Baltimore District Court judge and the mayor's wife, will give the opening speech.

Nilson figured that with MICA's eager students and with Allen Moore on the faculty, there might be some interest. Moore is the producer and director of the film and has done work for PBS. After the faculty at MICA agreed, Nilson called some other charter schools -KIPP Ujima Village Academy, Southwest Baltimore Charter School and Patterson Park Public Charter School - and got them on board. (Nilson said Southwest Baltimore and Patterson Park started in September 2005. KIPP and Midtown have been around for a few years.)

"I really thought it would be a good way to put the story together and get the word out," Nilson said of the film.

For Moore, that word is basically this one: choice.

Sitting at a computer in MICA's video department last week, Moore tried to boot up several scenes from the documentary. But he's an old-school filmmaker. He needed the help of two of his students, Asoka Esuruoso and Garrett Guidera, to work the computer controls.

Once that was done, Moore showed several scenes of faculty members from each school talking about the mission of charter schools. One teacher said, "Here at Patterson Park, we're the new voice of educational choice." When the clips were done, he turned to me.

"The key word you heard is choice," Moore said.

The director acknowledged that he knew nothing about charter schools before starting the documentary. But he learned as he went along. In addition to computer knowledge, Esuruoso also had an edge on Moore in knowledge of charter schools: her dad taught at one in her home state of Massachusetts.

"It's remarkable how some of these small schools have just blossomed into institutions of learning," Moore said, adding that one of the reasons the film was made was so that charter schools could "dispel myths about what a charter school is."

One of those "myths" might just be a common criticism of charter schools: that students there achieve no better academically than students at regular public schools. That may be true in general, but apparently somebody forgot to tell the folks at KIPP and Midtown.

The 2005 Maryland Report Card shows that nearly 12 percent of KIPP's seventh-graders were at the advanced level in reading for that year. Nearly 62 percent were proficient and just under 27 percent were at the basic level. That 12 percent at the advanced level for 2005 was an improvement over 2004, when the students were sixth-graders. That year, only 8 percent of KIPP sixth graders scored at the advanced level.

Compare those scores to the ones at Pimlico Middle School - which is located near KIPP and draws students from the same demographic - and the Dr. Roland N. Patterson Sr. Academy, which is located in the same building as KIPP. In 2005, 4.2 percent of Pimlico Middle seventh-graders scored at the advanced level. Some 24.4 percent scored at the proficient level and 71.4 percent at the basic level.

At the Dr. Roland N. Patterson Sr. Academy, the 2005 figures were 1.5 percent advanced, 19.5 percent proficient and 79 percent basic. As a reminder, basic means "students at this level are unable to read and comprehend grade appropriate literature and informational passages," according to the Web site www.mdreportcard.org.

At Midtown, 30 percent of seventh-graders scored at the advanced level in reading for 2005, Sixty percent scored at the proficient level and only 10 percent at the basic level. That 30 percent is a fantastic improvement over 2004, when 9.5 percent of Midtown's sixth-graders scored at the advanced level.

Keep an eye on this Nilson guy. I think he's on to something.

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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