Pairings put a purpose in kids' summer


It could have been a summer spent in front of the television, the way so many kids in West Baltimore pass these hot, humid days.

But here is Darlena Green, 13, testing the potassium level of the soil in the community garden she helped cultivate and sampling Swiss chard. Here she is at one of the area's most elite private schools, learning about long division, exponents and the order of operations.

Darlena is one of nearly 400 city middle school pupils whose teachers have noticed their potential and sent them this summer to a new program to hone academic skills and broaden their experiences. Known as the Middle Grades Partnership, the program is trying to prepare promising city children for competitive high schools. It is pairing their middle schools with private schools and universities to provide summer enrichment activities and year-round academic support.

The kids attend a monthlong summer program, generally at the private school campus. After the school year begins, they will continue to receive tutoring and be taken on field trips. Each public-private partnership has its own theme and curriculum, designed by teachers from both schools.

At West Baltimore's Garrison Middle School, where Darlena is entering eighth grade, officials are working with the all-female Roland Park Country School to teach girls about urban gardening.

The public Stadium School in Waverly teamed up with the private Park School in Pikesville to take kids on a four-day trip to Boston, the farthest most had ever been from home. Other sites are focusing on chess, debate and the mathematics of sports. The idea is to improve kids' academic performance by engaging them in learning that interests them, ideally for all three summers they are in middle school.

"It's like a regular school day, but fun," Darlena said, smiling shyly, as she weeded around four types of peppers in a garden that pupils are building behind Garrison and jotted notes in a journal. "If you don't know a skill, they'll teach you."

The program, running at 10 sites this year after a pilot program at three last year, is funded by private donors, primarily the Baltimore Community Foundation and the Morton K. and Jane Blaustein Foundation. Plans are in the works to more than double its size in the coming years, to serve 1,000 city pupils annually, and then to market it as a model nationally.

Nationwide, and particularly in Baltimore, educators are grappling with how to improve academic performance in middle schools. All the Middle Grades Partnership sites are working with their pupils on a common and critical skill deficit: They are unprepared for algebra.

Taking Algebra 1 in eighth grade is widely viewed as necessary for a student to be considered for admission to a top-tier college. Yet in the 2004-2005 school year, according to data the partnership provided, only 5 percent of eighth-graders in the city's public schools successfully completed Algebra 1. That compared with more than 50 percent of eighth-graders in Baltimore County public schools.

"Our sense is that the nation must identify the most capable children and give them the opportunities everyone should have," said Thomas E. Wilcox, the Baltimore Community Foundation president. "This is something we need to move our economy forward."

Educators have long been looking for ways to keep low-income students engaged over the summer, when the gap between their performance and that of their wealthier peers often widens because they don't have anything to do. Around the country, examples exist of private schools that are joining with inner-city public schools to combat that problem.

But in Baltimore, the Middle Grades Partnership's founders believe that few other programs are as comprehensive as theirs, operating at multiple sites all year, with staff from public and private schools working together.

As the program expands, colleges and universities will assume a larger role, said Beth Casey, director of the partnership. This year, only one (Towson University) has paired with a public school (Calverton Middle), but another seven have expressed interest in signing on.

And as teachers experiment with what works and what doesn't, much about the program is changing and evolving, Casey said. One unexpected challenge: Some kids finishing eighth grade can no longer participate because they need to spend the summer in paying jobs. In response, Casey is now seeking funding for student stipends.

The program's preliminary results are promising. Of 10 Garrison eighth-graders who participated in last year's pilot program, nine were accepted to the city's elite magnet high schools, such as Polytechnic Institute, City College and Western High School. At the Stadium School, 13 of 15 eighth-graders gained admission to those schools.

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