Greg Alexander

Schools helping schools

Baltimore Sun, November 25, 2007

The college experience offers many ways to learn beyond the classroom, many of which can be found on campus. However, sometimes college students may need to leave the ivy-covered walls of campus and explore the “real world.” Many local college students have done just that and – through different means – are tackling one of the greatest challenges in Baltimore: the public school system.

Returning to its roots

Some students at Goucher College may not realize that the campus was once located inn Baltimore City just south of Charles Village in a neighborhood now called Old Goucher. This historical fact is one of the reasons that the school has partnered with Dallas Nicholas Elementary School, located in Old Goucher. “It’s the perfect school for us to focus on, especially since the neighborhood has the highest density of non-profits of anywhere in the City,” says Robert Koulish, Ph.D., France-Merrick Professor of Service Learning at Goucher College, who helped form the partnership almost five years ago. In addition to service projects where Goucher students help clean the neighborhood and school, Koulish says that students volunteer at an after school program called BOOST, while also helping teachers.

“We have a new program called, ‘Read a Story, Write a Story’ to improve reading and writing skills. About 40 Goucher students volunteer in a program where they work with students in grades 1 through 5. The kids tell their own stories, read stories and write stories, and at the end of the program, the kids’ stories get bound in a book, which is distributed and showcased at the school.” Koulish adds that theater students at Goucher are also involved, taking the stories to the stage, and Dallas Nicholas is the first school to have a radio studio where Goucher students help kids develop programming. “It’s all about building communication skills,” he says.

“About 99 percent of the students at Dallas Nicholas are low-income and African-American. On the surface, this should not be a top school; however, it’s one of the top testing schools in the City and the State, thanks to a very committed staff of teachers. Turnover is very low there, and the entire community is involved.” Koulish notes that the previous principal was named the top principal in the state, and the new principal is continuing the school’s success.

Using his influence

There are many ways to stay connected to your alma mater, whether it’s joining the alumni association, guest speaking at a lecture or simply attending a football game. Christopher Cash, who graduated from Morgan State University last year, decided to use his connection to his alma mater to establish a mentoring program at the school he now teaches at, Winston Middle School. “My senior year at Morgan, I did my student teaching at Winston Middle, which is located near campus. I was amazed how quickly the kids stuck to me like glue. I think because I am young and played football, they related to me, but in the end, they just wanted someone to listen to them and hear their stories,” says Cash, who started the Morgan Mentors Winston Winners program. “It’s in the Big Brother, Big Sister model in that I try to match a mentor with a child based on common interests. If a child likes math, I try to find an accounting major at Morgan, or if a child likes tennis, I find someone on the tennis team. The college students share their stories with the kids and show them the possibilities and opportunities for them to go to college. We want them to look beyond high school.”

Cash also plans field trips and brings in guest speakers. “I don’t have much of a budget, so I try to work partnerships. This year I was able to take the kids to an Orioles game for free, courtesy of the Orioles.” Cash says that exposing the kids to campus life is important, too. “Even though many of the kids leave close by, a lot of them have never been on Morgan’s campus. I’ll take them to a football or basketball game to show them what college life is like. Even if they are not athletes, it may spark an interest in the marching band or ROTC. I’m not looking to save a kid; I aim to simply expose them to the opportunities that exist,” says Cash.

Not just for teachers

While working with a local public school may seem like a “no-brainer” for an education major, Deb Graslewicz, TUTORS program coordinator at Towson University, notes that the work Towson students perform at four schools in the Cherry Hill neighborhood of Baltimore City is not just for teachers. “The mentorship program at these schools is great for any Towson student interested in working with children, whether the student is a childhood education, nursing or business major. Our students have a love for children and want to make a difference. It’s a very personal experience for them,” says Graslewicz.

Graslewicz notes that the program began in 2005 as part of the “No Child Left Behind Act,” and the Towson students primarily assist with reading and math skills at four schools. “They work one-on-one and in groups with the kids, as well as help out the teachers.” She adds that the jobs qualify for work/study so that the students can get paid for their time. Some choose to volunteer, too, she says.

Hands-on experience and hope

Taking a slightly different approach, the University of Maryland School of Medicine brings students to their campus each summer via its Baltimore City Public High School Summer Research Program. Jordan Warnick, Ph.D., assistant dean for student education and research and professor of pharmacology and experimental therapeutics at the School of Medicine, says that the program offers high students a wide array of knowledge. “They are taught how to do medical research through hands-on experience. Additionally, they receive training in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and how to work with animals during research in a humane way,” says Warnick. “They also meet key individuals on campus, and we educate them on how to pick a college, how to apply to a school and about financial aid. We show them what health professions are out there and how they can map out their future. Warnick adds that the high school students are given a stipend for the summer.

After orientation, Warnick says that the students are placed in a lab with a mentor who matches the student’s academic interest. “They also learn how to make PowerPoint presentations and how to write scientific abstracts.” All the students in the program are from Baltimore City, and Warnick says that the university has a special relationship with Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy, located near campus. “We’ve adopted these kids and are thrilled to have them here. We are all looking to give back.”

Lending a helping hand

Another University of Maryland program is aimed at providing mental health services to students and their families at six Baltimore City public schools, says Ann-Marie Bond, assistant director of the University of Maryland School of Social Work Community Outreach Service (SWCOS), which has been working with public schools since 1994.

“We take the approach of bringing teachers and parents together to help establish structure and give positive reinforcement to the kids,” says Trish DiPaula, a field instructor in SWCOS, who says the program originated with four schools in West Baltimore. “We have been instrumental in many of the schools in reinvigorating parental involvement,” adds Bond, who notes that students who work in the program are graduate level students who can utilize the experience to qualify as one of the required fieldwork experiences necessary to earn a master’s degree in social work. “Some of the students go above and beyond what is required and volunteer their own time to help the kids,” says Jessica Mott, another field instructor in SWCOS. Mott says that first-year graduate students work two days and week in the schools, while second-year students work three days. The students provide services eight hours a day.

“We structure the program based on each school’s culture. In middle schools, for example, kids will come directly to us because they want to talk to someone. After we received permission from the guardian, we can help. Loss of a family member is a common reason they need counseling for, and in some of the schools where we have been there for a while, the parents are aware of our services. In elementary schools, the teachers and administrators come to us when a child is having problems.”

Passionate team approach

The Truancy Court Program by the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) has garnered many accolades locally and nationally, as it tries to address the staggering number of Baltimore City schoolchildren who miss school each day. Using a holistic instead of a punitive approach, the program partners with the Baltimore City Public School System, the Baltimore City District Court and Circuit Court judges to work in tandem with parents, teachers and school administrators to target “soft” truants – students who have three to 20 absences – to figure out the reasons why these kids are missing school. Barbara Babb, associate professor of law and director of CFCC, says that data shows that a 75 percent increase for those students who participate in the program during and immediately following involvement in the program, which is currently at six City schools.

Gloria Danzinger, senior fellow at CFCC, explains that participation in the program is strictly voluntary. Participating schools – which must apply to be part of the program – send letters to parents and guardians of students with excessive absences and then someone at CCFC follows up with a phone call. Ten weekly in-school meetings bring together all parties to determine the root causes of truancy, says Babb. “We utilize the stature of the judge to enforce the severity of the situation, but it’s also an opportunity for a child to see a judge in a helping, positive way,” says Babb. “We schedule the meetings at the same time on the same day to create some structure,” adds Danzinger, “and emphasize that truancy is a family problem. Parental involvement is mandatory; they don’t have to be there every week, but they must commit to regular involvement to celebrate successes and to shed light on what is going on at home.” She notes that the team-based approach also involves volunteers and law student fellows, who are instrumental to success.

And while the incredible coordination skills and family law experience of those involved in the program is necessary, it’s the passion for children that really makes the difference, says Anthony “Bubba” Green, a mentor in the program.

“It can be very difficult at times,” says Green, who played football for the Baltimore Colts and coached at Morgan State. “Sometimes you are given phone numbers that have been disconnected, but you have to have passion for kids to make this work.” Green says that many times the solution to truancy or tardiness is an easy one – a reliable alarm clock, proper uniform or better understanding of school paperwork.

“Once we get the parents and child to commit, we’ve got them,” he says, “but we make sure that we give them the resources they need so that we can empower them to take this problem on.” Green says that he makes kids sign a contract and has them walk him through their morning routine. “It’s my ‘Early to Bed, Early to Rise’ program where we determine how long it takes them to dress, perform hygiene duties, eat breakfast and get to school so that we can pinpoint a time they need to be up.” Green also works on character building through such exercises as how to ask for help and when to say, “Thank you” and “Please.”

Back to top