The Community School, a one-room schoolhouse in Remington thrives
By Jim Burger
Mar 16, 2016 | 3:00 AM
From the outside, it looks like a storefront because it once was. Some old-timers in Remington still remember it as Mack's Corner Store, a place to buy groceries and household items. Every Baltimore neighborhood had a place like Mack's, the cornerstone of the community. And although it is long gone now, in its place sits a new cornerstone—the Community School. Inside, 16 high school age students sit at six tables arranged in a "U" shape. They work in absolute silence, figuring math problems from well-worn textbooks. They rise one by one to approach the lone teacher, who lords over them from a leather executive chair at the front of the room. On his desk, within reach, his laptop and cellphone constantly ping notifications of incoming texts and emails. He reviews a student's work and pats him on the back, "Good. Do another." More students line up. "Next. Next. Next. Keep it moving." And so it goes for over an hour, always more lining up to have their work checked by "Mr. Tom."
Mr. Tom is Tom Culotta, 61, a sturdy man with salt and pepper hair and an easy smile. Forty years ago, he sat down at his kitchen table to help his 12-year-old neighbor with his homework, and never stopped. Along the way he built an academic and mentoring high school with an accelerated three year program, approved by the Maryland Board of Education, and prepared hundreds of students to graduate from high school, go on to college, and lead stable, productive lives. The school gets no government funding, and survives through donations, a modest weekly tuition of $25 per student, and fundraising, such as the sale of pizzas and Christmas wreaths. The roots of the school grew out of a need within the Remington community. In the late 1970s the neighborhood children were dropping out of school at rates between 65 and 85 percent. Culotta started plucking kids off the street and tutoring them wherever he could—an abandoned building turned youth center at the corner of Lorraine Avenue and Howard Street or local church social halls. In January 1982, he and others founded the Community School in the basement of the Church of the Guardian Angel, and moved it to its present home on Huntingdon Avenue and 30th Street in 1998.
In those early years the school's students were Culotta's Remington neighbors, often dropouts. "Historically that was the case," he says. "Many were not in good standing with other schools." And school supplies came from unconventional sources. "For the first three months I taught reading from the newspaper, and writing using scrap paper scrounged from the John D. Lucas Stationery Store." Those frugal practices still carry over today. Textbooks are a huge expense, and some in the school's collection date from the 1980's. "We'll squeeze an education out of anything we have, and I would challenge anyone to find a better government course than the one we teach. It's thorough, engaging, and relates to real life."
The school day is a rigorous one; students often spend 10 hours in the classroom and on homework. "They do it because they are committed. We have 16 kids with a totally 100 percent individualized curriculum. That is a feat I'm very proud of."
It's not a 9-to-5 existence for anybody. Culotta makes the 10-minute drive from his Woodberry home and rolls in at 6:40 a.m. Some students arrive by 7 a.m. and everyone must be in their seats by 7:55 a.m. Class begins precisely at 8 a.m. and often Culotta will have the assembled recite the "Habits of the Community School Student" in unison: "Show up every day, on time, prepared to learn, with a positive attitude, and ALL of your work." Officially the day ends at 4:30 p.m., but on any given day over half the pupils remain for hours longer, working on schoolwork or class projects. Culotta laughs, "I don't like to turn kids out, but I'm trying to get my workday down to 12 hours."
One of the seven members of the school's board of trustees is Ed Gavin. He was Culotta's first student sitting at that kitchen table in 1976, and now owns his own residential remodeling company. He says he serves on the board because he sees the school's influence on the community and the students. "The kids know there is a reward for hard work, honesty, integrity, and caring about more than just yourself. They are there for each other." Nor is Gavin timid when extoling the merits of the Community School itself, "The kids don't come in here like that, and anyone who has had a kid go here sees a change immediately."
Change was exactly what Justin Switzer saw; he too is a member of the board of trustees. His family was evicted from 13 houses before he was 10 years old, and was homeless twice. "I was never a good student, and was put in special education because I couldn't read until the third grade. I was involved in drugs and alcohol and came to the Community School because I had been kicked out of Poly [Baltimore Polytechnic Institute]." Culotta recalls the day Switzer showed up for his interview. "Justin was wearing a 'School Shooting Tour' t-shirt, and I remember thinking to myself, 'Is this some sort of test?'" Culotta pushed Switzer to do more with his life. "I don't know why, but Tom saw the potential in me. He made me want to do better."
Switzer's true mettle was tested after he earned his G.E.D. and enrolled at Stevenson University. He worked his morning job cleaning and restocking Long Johns Pub and then rushed home to prepare for his first day of class. When he arrived at his house all his belongings were on the sidewalk—his family had been evicted again. "I shoved everything I could into my book bag and went to school. That night I went to see Tom. I wanted to quit. But Tom talked me through it. He let me sleep at the school, and the next day I woke up and went back to college." He eventually earned his Master's in Library Science. Today Switzer is a department head and the Teen Librarian at the Enoch Pratt Southeast Anchor Library in Highlandtown.
Over the years Culotta has taught between 500 and 700 students. Originally, the Community School was for residents of Remington. But over time he witnessed a "Remington Diaspora." Families have been priced out, broken up, or moved away. But they still need the school. Students now come not only from Remington, but also Hampden, Woodberry, Medfield, and farther afield. He also sees legacy students—children of former students have enrolled. The goals though, remain constant. Culotta stresses his mantra, "Build a foundation for a happy and successful life…and that comes from choices. Don't tolerate less and you'll be happier."
One student dispersed from the neighborhood was Kelsey Larrimore. A former resident of Remington Avenue until about fifth grade, she now lives in Southwest Baltimore in a house she shares with her grandmother, mother, cousin, and cousin's girlfriend. She attended Western High School, but left after failing ninth grade algebra. "I have a better relationship with my teachers here. My old ones didn't care, so I didn't care. I just went along," she said. Her commitment is evident in her commute. Larrimore gets up every day at 5 a.m. and rides two buses and the light rail to arrive at school, often before Culotta. She hopes one day to become a mental health counselor for teens.
Mikey Poe was a product of the sometimes-dysfunctional Baltimore City public school system. He grew up in Hampden, attended the #55 Elementary School there, and was promoted from kindergarten through eighth grade with low marks. His family enrolled him in the public charter school, Academy for College and Career Exploration (ACCE). He attended for two years and even finished the 10th grade before feelings of anxiety crushed him. "It was too big, overwhelming, and I couldn't work it out. Somehow I got by," he said. His mother, Kimberly, recalls the stress of that time, "He wanted to quit school. I was crying. I didn't want him to drop out. We brought him to talk to Tom, and he took a chance on Mikey." Poe's anxiety lessened. "It's like a family. You can have a family with 20 students, you can't have a family with 800." He is also pragmatic about his situation—at 18 years of age he is older than most high school students. "I know I should be out by now, and it bothers me sometimes. The point is, I'm getting it."
Sadie Greenwood thrives at the Community School, and overcame long odds to do so. The Park Heights resident, now in her second year, did well in middle school, but felt disconnected in high school. She is candid about her failures: "I dropped out of City College after half a year, I dropped out of ConneXions School for the Arts after half a year." Abby Markoe, Greenwood's mentor since the sixth grade, became frustrated with her lack of success. "Sadie was very bright, and interested in school, but she needed the right school." Markoe's patience was also finite. "I told Sadie this was a huge stretch for me. You need to think about our relationship. You need to choose." Greenwood recalls their telephone conversation as well, "She said this is my last chance with you and she was bringing me to the Community School. I just said yes to get her off the phone."
Greenwood rises at 4 a.m. and rides the #27 bus to and from school. She remembers one particular trip home, "I got off the bus and there was a dead body on the corner." Greenwood lives on Cordelia Avenue in Northwest Baltimore. "I hear a lot about the murders, and it's not that I'm used to it, but I've become numb." The Community School is her solace: "When I leave my house I leave everything behind. When I'm here, I don't think about what's at home." Like Poe, Greenwood likens the school to kinsfolk, "We're like a family," then adds with a smile, "A big, weird, family."
Dr. Andres Alonso, the CEO of the Baltimore City Schools from 2007-2013, exploring whether the public schools could replicate a Community School model, visited the school in 2008 and had long discussions with Culotta. "He tried to talk us into turning the Community School into a charter school, but we weren't interested in doing that," Culotta said. Finally, in 2010, Alonso took what he gleaned from Culotta and opened his own school on the site of the former Southeast Middle School, in Southeast Baltimore. He even went so far as to name the new school the Baltimore Community High School, a sore point with Culotta and his board. Their anger was short-lived, the Baltimore City School Board voted in November of 2015 to close the school.
Local organizations and nonprofits—like St. John's Methodist which has donated as much as $10,000 some years—keep the organization afloat. But pizza, Christmas wreath sales, and donations notwithstanding, money for the school is a constant concern. Ken Bancroft who spent his 17-year career at St. Agnes Hospital, first as its chief financial officer and later its president, met Culotta in 2005. He became actively involved in raising money and last year spearheaded the ambitious campaign to secure three-year pledges, sufficient enough to hire a second fulltime teacher. Individuals, the school's network, social media, and a generous match from the Goldseker Foundation helped the school meet its goals. "In many ways, the school sells itself," says Bancroft.
With the pledged money, Culotta hired Genira Nelson-Lewis, a Jamaican-born teacher, educated at Baltimore's Morgan State University and currently working on her PhD at Howard University. Her presence relieves Culotta of having to teach every subject to every student. Each day, following a joint math class, Nelson-Lewis shepherds the first year students to a separate room that once served as the building's garage. She teaches English, health, science, and geography. Culotta is pleased with the hire. "She embraces the work ethic, embraces the grit, and encourages the students to have grit. I can teach the method, I can't teach grit."
But education at the Community School goes beyond the staff. Over the years, Culotta has assembled a formidable volunteer faculty to teach topics as varied as horticulture, creative writing, and financial literacy. Miko Veldkamp, a painter from the Netherlands, gives art instruction every Wednesday, and has begun walking students to the nearby Baltimore Museum of Art for inspiration. Margaret Hart, from the Whiting School of Engineering of the Johns Hopkins University, approached Culotta about running a robotics seminar over three Saturdays. She and a group of her young engineers guided 10 students to build LED circuits and eventually assemble and program automated racecars. The class culminated with a hotly contested, timed, obstacle course.
Culotta is not shy about asking friends and acquaintances to come in as guest speakers. Recently Dr. Alan Scott, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at the Bloomberg School of Public Health came to lecture on malaria and infectious diseases. He is one of many who donate time to the school. "I don't think people realize what a mass of people it takes to make this thing work," says Culotta. "Even the kids don't realize it."
It's a little after 7 a.m. on a rainy Monday at the Community School. Already a few students are in their seats reading or working on laptops. All look up and say good morning as more classmates come through the door. They place their cellphones in a box on the table near the door, to be retrieved only at lunch, or during infrequent breaks. One student reads a book she will report on later, a half-eaten bowl cereal sits nearby. Culotta works quietly at his desk, then looks up to remind those students who worked during the previous year to bring their W2s with them on Friday and he will help them do their taxes. One worked at Burger King, another at Giant Foods, and still another had a summer job at the Real Food Farm in Clifton Park. Culotta finishes grading a test and announces that a student has passed test number nine in his 20-test course. Everyone pauses to applaud, and then the room grows silent again. Culotta surveys the scene, and declares: "I'm thankful for every day I'm here. It's an honor to live a life of meaning." The clock on the wall reads 8 a.m., and the Community School is now in session.