A learning experience

editorial notebook

December 13, 2008|By Glenn McNatt

Years ago, the singer Michael Jackson released the music video "Bad," in which he played the role of a poor kid from a tough neighborhood who got a chance to attend an elite private boarding school. A lot of the sixth-graders at the SEED School of Maryland probably could relate to that.

The school opened this year on the campus of Baltimore's old Southwestern High School, and it is the fulfillment of what once must have seemed like an impossible dream for many of the kids and their parents: a tuition-free education at a first-rate boarding school with teachers dedicated to preparing them for college. When fully enrolled in grades 6 through 12, SEED will serve about 400 youngsters.

SEED (Schools for Educational Evolution and Development) is a public charter school; it receives public funds but is independent of the city school system (it's also supported by foundation grants and private donors). As a public school, SEED can't cherry-pick students, so it chose them by a statewide lottery; 300 families applied for 80 slots. The kids are mostly from public schools in Baltimore city and county, Prince George's and Howard counties and a tiny contingent from Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore.

Learning goes on 24-7. The academic day runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. - an hour longer than city schools - and classes are small at 13 students per instructor. After classes, the kids return to the dorm and change out of their uniforms, eat a snack, then engage in activities such as soccer, gardening or chess club for another hour. Then an hour of study hall is followed by dinner in the cafeteria. Down time is 8:15 p.m. to 9 p.m., then it's lights out at 10. At 6:30 the next morning, they're up again. They go home Friday afternoon, returning for another week's classes on Sunday.

I watched social studies teacher Jesse Stovall teach a lesson on human development from Australopithecus, who appeared some 3.9 million years ago, to modern humans. (I was amazed that sixth-graders could even pronounce awe-stra-lo-PITH-i-cus.) Mr. Stovall, whose performance reminded me that teaching really is an art, had constructed a 4 million-year timeline on strips of paper that ran completely around the room on the walls just below the ceiling. He had assigned students to draw various human ancestors and was now collecting those works and stapling them to the line while making sure every student in the room participated in the discussion.

Later, I saw some of those same students in Michelle Labonte's art class. They were working on a color-coordination exercise, and it occurred to me that I had seen those same principles applied in the images of human ancestors Mr. Stovall's students handed in. The school talks a lot about integrating arts into the curriculum, but you can't really appreciate what that means until you see it done.

When students aren't in class, residence counselors offer help with homework and a sympathetic ear. The kids are still adjusting, and like college freshmen or first-time campers, some are homesick. The dorms are divided into "houses" of 10 kids each, and each house is named after a college - there's a "Princeton," a "Boston U," a "Towson" and a "Bowie State." SEED wants kids to get used to the idea that those are the kinds of places they're headed when they leave.

The school stresses character development. Core values include respect for others, self-discipline, empathy, perseverance, integrity and compassion. That's a tall order for 11- and 12-year-olds, most of whom have never lived away from home before. But those are social skills you need to make it in college, and SEED believes in starting early.

Of course, there have been growing pains. A few kids have left because they missed their families. Others find it tough keeping up. They're not used to homework every night plus weekend assignments , even though the counselors give them extra help. No TV or video games has also been a shock. Even cell phones are restricted .

But if they stick it out, these students will have many more choices for their future than most city public school students, up to 60 percent of whom drop out of high school. Compare that to the 10-year-old Washington SEED School: Almost all its students end up in college. Michael Jackson employed the contemporary slang of the 1980s when called that "bad" in his music video. What he really meant was: This is very good .

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