City students pack Camden Yards for school choice fair

Oriole Park at Camden Yards was the site Saturday of a contest waged not with bats, balls and gloves but test scores, curriculum overviews and student testimonials.

It was the annual school choice fair for Baltimore City public schools. Students and staff from 64 middle schools and high schools set up shop to woo fifth- and eighth-graders who will soon choose where to attend next year.

School officials said that nearly 15,000 people came to the event on the stadium's club-level concourse, triple the number of attendees last year. From table to table they moved along the crowded hallway, learning about academic programs, signing up for open houses and accumulating a growing stash of brochures.

And at seemingly every turn they encountered big doses of school spirit — from marching bands to cheerleaders to proud students eager to talk up the merits of their respective institutions.

School officials said they were impressed by the turnout.

"There's no enthusiasm gap at all," observed Neil Duke, president of the city school board, after stepping into a quiet skybox overlooking the empty baseball field.

The only "hiccup" was a pedestrian logjam as crowds waited for elevators to take them up to the club level, said Debbie Thomas, the school system's executive assistant for student support and safety. At one point, a couple of hundred people stood in the brisk sunshine, inching toward the ballpark entrance.

Overall, Thomas said, the event went "extremely well." She said the array of information would help students and parents work through a key question: "What's a good school for me?"

Every eighth-grader in the city system must choose a high school for next year. Fifth-graders must pick a middle school if they go to one of 36 elementary schools that do not feed traditional middle schools, while the rest have the option to choose an alternative. Applications are due Dec. 22, and students will hear by March.

This was the fair's debut at Camden Yards; past events were held at the Poly-Western complex on Falls Road. But last year, said school system spokeswoman Edie House-Foster, "we were bursting at the seams."

The new location gave students a chance to visit the stadium, and because the fair was on the club level, they also got to gawk at two of the Orioles' World Series trophies and four Gold Gloves.

Nasir Gist, who's 10, seemed pleasantly overwhelmed by the number of schools represented. "You have a lot of different choices," he said. He liked Mount Royal Elementary/Middle's science program and gym.

His mother, Gina Lucas, suggested that a better fit might be Friendship Academy of Science and Technology, a charter school in Canton. She likes its science curriculum, small class size, safe neighborhood and that her son would have to ride only one bus from their Northeast Baltimore home.

But students aren't guaranteed their top pick, so Lucas said she wants her son to have several solid choices. She peppered the staff for each school with questions: How good are your test scores? How big are your classes? Are there behavioral issues?

Schools used some creativity to showcase their offerings. W.E.B. DuBois High School had a functional robot. West Baltimore's Vivian T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy had students decked out in scrubs, including Garnell Purcer, a 15-year-old sophomore with a stethoscope around his neck.

The medical arts academy's principal, Starletta Jackson, said the fair is "a big deal" because it gives students shopping for schools the chance to hear from their peers and not just adults.

Near the end of the event, Angel Yates was still selling her charter school, the Maryland Academy of Technology & Health Sciences (MATHS), where she's president of the sophomore class. Asked for her pitch, she said, "We have one-on-one interaction with teachers. Our classes are a lot smaller. It's a really good school."

After talking to one potential recruit, clipboard in hand, she ended on an enthusiastic note: "Just come check us out!"

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