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Middle Grades Partnership program makes you want to go back to school

Monday morning is often tedious. The phone rings non-stop. My own "to call" list is a mile long. On a recent Monday, temperatures started to climb into the 90's, so I had to water the garden more than usual before starting the day. I felt tired by 9 a.m.

But how quickly a "Monday mood" can change. I went to Ann Daniels's up the street and was enthusiastically greeted by her dog, Bagley. Her daughter came cheerfully downstairs to say hello, before Ann and I took off to our alma mater, Roland Park Country School.

We were met by Beth Drummond Casey, executive director of the citywide Middle Grades Partnership and by Maria Hampton, dean of students for the middle school at Roland Park Country and site director for its Middle Grades Partnership.

Although I'd heard about the program before, I'd never seen it in action. Nothing makes a week start better than seeing something working well in Baltimore City and something transforming lives.

This summer, eight seventh-graders, 13 eighth-graders and 11 ninth-graders from Garrison Middle School, plus 28 high school students — who are or have been in the middle grades program — are participating in a summer session at Roland Park Country. The middle school program is called Growing Girls and Gardens; the high school program is The Next Step.

I saw only one-third of the program, and it made me want to see the other components and meet the high school students in them. One, in science, is at Loyola University. The other, in architecture, is at Morgan State University.

What I saw made me wish that girls at Paul's Place, where I volunteer, had access to something like this.

The simple, but powerful, centerpiece of this particular partnership is a garden at Garrison Middle. During the school year, it is tended by Garrison students and their counterparts from Roland Park Country, where the experience continues in summer with art, dance, reading, writing, science and math.

At Roland Park Country, I saw papier-mache frames made by the girls around canvases they would soon paint. I saw a math teacher talking about home ownership and mortgages. In science, middle schoolers were about to encounter soil samples, compost and worms. Some would use herbs in different ways from their garden.

In reading, books were used as a springboard to language, to girls learning more about themselves, to setting goals and supporting one other to achieve them. Boxes for "True Believer" cereal had ingredients for success written on them.

In writing, Brenda Tilghman, site director from Garrison Middle, would teach diamond-shaped poems that focused on a garden element.

Stiff from weekend hours in my own garden, I sat down in each classroom. I was reluctant to get up. I wanted to try a diamond poem and make a papier-mache frame myself.

As we left, Ann and I watched a dance class. A former Middle Grades Partnership student and recent Baltimore School for the Arts graduate led a smooth and jazzy dance. It was clear that these middle school girls, while learning dance and choreography, felt good about themselves and had fun together.

Riding back to our street with Ann, whom I met in her childhood, I thought about the academic enrichment the Middle Grades Partnership provides. I also thought about the self-confidence, lasting bonds and sense of community that strengthens these young women in middle school and as they enter high school and college.

An added boost was knowing that the citywide Middle Grades Partnership includes eight other unique partnerships, like the one between Garrison Middle and Roland Park Country. That gave me hope for the week, and for our city.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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