Parents and alumni at Parole Elementary never felt they had to justify keeping their school open. But when rumors began surfacing last year that the school may close, they armed themselves for a fight.

Ironically, a battle begun for fear of losing the school forced a renewed appreciation of its importance to the close-knit community -- and helped ensure its future.

Rhonda Pindell Charles, a former student and now an assistant state's attorney in Baltimore, is among a growing group of community watchdogs who want to make sure the red brick school on Chinquapin Round Road survives.

Working in school board meetings around her schedule of court cases, she often can be found in the second row with a small coalition of parents, updating board members on Parole's progress or simply monitoring the meeting in order to report back to the school community.

Charles said the struggle is a matter of preserving the last historically black school in the county. Other school buildings, such as Adams Park and Carver, have been converted to other uses.

"I see it as trying to preserve history," Charles said. "A lot of people outside the community have begun to see Parole in a new light. They didn't know that we had been quietly working well."

Parole, with an enrollment of 312, has gotten the attention of school board members, who placed it second on the capital budget priority list for renovations and repairs. They also made it the elementary school pilot site for the new integrated computer system ISIS, which will eventually connect all county schools and the Board of Education for instructional and record-keeping purposes. School principal Charles Bowers, who came to the school two years ago, hasn't missed a beat, enlisting the help of parents to keep the school running and capitalizing on existing school pride. Each morning Bowers and assistant principal Alfreda Adams greet students in front of the school; once inside, students are met by warm messages on walls throughout the school, with words like "Welcome to Proud Parole."

"There are so many families that have gone through the school that it is part of the culture and community to keep Parole intact," Bowers said. "We have parents who will take off from work to spend time helping out in the school."

For years, families with alumni stretching over as many as four generations thought that spirit would have been enough to ensure the school's stability. But when the rumors started flying last year, they realized more needed to be done.

The list of alumni include athletes, politicians, doctors, ministers and lawyers -- many of whom continue to serve the school as mentors or volunteers.

Leon Washington once attended Parole, but now walks its hallways as a pupil personnel worker responsible for helping students sort out personal problems that may interfere with school. Dorothy Dennis Swim, now a second-grade teacher at the school, was among the first group of white students who integrated the school in 1967.

Getting the word out about the school meant petitions, and getting a crowd of more than 40 to show up during budget hearings last year.

The strategy worked.

No one denies that the school was up for review last year, but School Board President Nancy Gist said it has proven viable.

"Is it operating and operating well?" she said. "It is as of now, and we have no reason to doubt that it will continue to do so. The community and school have rallied to maintain it. It has become a community institution, bigger than a school."

Today the school owns only 11 computers. They are on carts that are rolled from class to class. But by Nov. 1, a lab with 32 computer terminals will be used in every phase of study. Workmen in hard hats busily move in and out of the planned computer room, where a large sign serves as a reminder to students of better things to come.

The sign reads, "Our Future Computer Lab."

Board members Jo Ann Tollenger and Vincent Leggett have pledged to maintain the school's programs, and to include money in the capital budget request to install walls in the open-space school and build a gym.

Currently, the cafeteria, gym and multi-purpose room are one and the same, limiting the number of school activities that may be planned during the school day.

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