Students forge a partnership

Baltimore, Carroll teens swap visits to see how their education differs

December 14, 2006|By Arin Gencer | Arin Gencer,Sun Reporter

Shatera Brooks placed her hand on her hip as she strutted forward into the light.

The 18-year-old stopped, pivoted and sashayed back.

She and her classmates from Baltimore's Doris M. Johnson High School agreed as they took turns in the spotlight, the auditorium at Carroll County's Century High School - and the runway-like bridge connected to the stage - would be perfect for their fashion show.

"Take notes, Kenny," Shatera and another girl shouted to a classmate who is organizing the show. "Take notes."

Although they didn't have notebooks, the nearly 30 students came to observe on a recent Wednesday afternoon, when they drove northwest to explore the Carroll campus.

Their visit marked the schools' second meeting in what students hope will become a partnership. The Century students are creating documentaries of each trip and have completed the first one.

In September, they went to Baltimore to see city education at work. Now it was Doris M. Johnson's turn.

"It's important for kids to know that there's so much more of a broader focus outside the walls of Baltimore City," said Tricia Rock, the Baltimore school's principal. Both schools, she said, are "trying to get the kids to do a multicultural exchange of ideas."

As small clusters of city students - led by Century peers - roamed through classrooms, gyms and music halls for a couple of hours, they saw their fill.

They peered into large blue tubs filled with tilapia and striped bass in a science research room, marveled at a student-created replica of the World Trade Center complex in a workshop, danced to an ensemble rehearsing in a music room and played speedball in the gym.

Baltimore senior Kenneth Andrews walked down a wide hallway lined with turquoise-colored lockers, quietly taking everything in.

"It's kind of nice and peaceful," said Kenneth, 17. "I just love it."

The visits were organized and driven by Judith Jones, one of Century's assistant principals who also worked for more than a decade at the Lake Clifton Eastern High School complex where the small learning community of Doris M. Johnson resides.

New to Century, Jones said she was stunned at the disparity between the county and city school systems - and determined to do something to connect them.

"They look like they have nothing in common, but yet they were talking and communicating and having fun," Jones said of the students, referring to their first September visit.

Taking in graffiti and cracked and stained tiles on the Baltimore campus, some Century students said they had renewed appreciation for their school.

"It killed me that they didn't have a music department," said Tyler Benoit, 16, a junior and percussionist, referring to the city school's limited arts offerings. Band students they met didn't have instruments, she said. Instead, they focused more on music theory.

But interviews they conducted with city students revealed the school spirit Century lacked, and a "sense of entitlement" - as Century's academic facilitator Thom McHugh described it - that sometimes surfaces among students.

"They're very passionate about their school," Century senior Caitlin Adolph, 16, said. She and her peers noted the Baltimore students' desire to be in school, despite limited resources.

"They've got such a vitality in them that we don't have," Caitlin said. "I think they can definitely instill some of that in us."

It didn't take Akette McDougald, 18, a senior at Doris M. Johnson, long to conclude that Century students are "truly blessed."

"Do you all have any career-based clubs?" Akette asked Caitlin as they stood in the school's weight room, where Brooks and others tried out the machines.

Caitlin described career-path classes, such as floral design, cooking and manufacturing.

"You have an adviser who takes you through all four years," she said.

"Basically, you all are kind of like a college," Akette said. "You have things that you could choose to do. We have things that you have to do."

Jones said she hopes Century students can help their Baltimore counterparts and show them avenues for academic opportunities. Teachers from both schools could go on "learning walks" to get a sense of their distinct experiences and challenges.

Once the second documentary is completed, the students plan to share both films and have an open discussion with other students, members of their respective school boards, staffs and administrators, Jones said, perhaps in early January.

"We don't want it to just be a day slumber party," Jones said. "I really believe both schools can get something from each other." Doris M. Johnson, for example, has a law program and student court that Century could draw from, she said.

Yet some of the Baltimore students said the day's visit served as a valuable lesson.

Kenneth said that seeing the disparities upset him but that knowing they exist would make him thankful in the future and remind him of "how far I came as a person."

Akette agreed. She and her peers deserve an education as good at the one students at Century get, she said, but "it already seems like they're 10 years in front, and we're like 10 years behind."

Still, she said later, "I enjoy our school. We don't have much, but we make something out of it. ... Maybe having it easy just wasn't for us."

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