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Residents oppose plan to rename city school; Board's proposal for Walbrook High 'degrading,' says one


As Georgine Edgerton rode down Clifton Avenue in West Baltimore last week, she couldn't help reminiscing about how Walbrook Senior High first defined and then transformed the neighborhood she has called home for more than 30 years.

It seems like just yesterday that the disparate Mount Holly, Windsor Hills, Fairmount Park and Woodhaven communities found themselves in an unlikely partnership supporting the school's creation, she says. From there, the alliance went on to help build affordable housing developments, condos and almost every community marker that stands in what is known as Greater Walbrook, including Cahill Recreation Center and Walbrook Junction shopping center.

"We have always done everything we can to make this area better for all people," Edgerton says as she tallies the coalition's credits. "And what brought us all together as a neighborhood was the school. It will always be part of our heritage."

Edgerton says that heritage is being disrespected by efforts to change Walbrook's name.

Two weeks ago, Baltimore's school board approved a request to rename the school the Walbrook Uniformed Services Academy. School system attorneys are investigating whether they must get approval from City Council to go ahead with the change -- but a painted sign with the new name has been hung over the old one on the building.

"It would be devastating," Edgerton said of the proposed revision. "That school is the center of our neighborhood. If they change the name, they're discounting all the history we have there. They're degrading it.

'Center of our neighborhood'

"If they can do this to us, what does that say about their respect for any neighborhood in the city?" Edgerton asked.

Edgerton's passions offer a glimpse into the bond that can form between schools and the communities that surround them. Edgerton's children are grown, and her grandchildren are too old to be Walbrook students, but she feels inextricably tied to the school through the community.

All over Baltimore -- and the country -- neighborhoods derive their senses of self and togetherness from the schools that serve them. Like Walbrook, some communities wouldn't exist and neighbors wouldn't know each other if not for the schools. Some observers say the school board's approval of the name-change request indicates something else: a general lack of respect for the school-community relationship in Baltimore.

"I don't think the powers that be really look at the community as part of their decision-making process," said Zattura Sims-El, program director for the Baltimore Education Network and a vice president of the citywide council of PTAs. "We're placated and 'dealt with,' but we aren't really listened to, and I don't think there's a sensitivity to history or a sense of community."

Sims-El says the board's response to Edgerton and others from Walbrook, who have spoken at two public meetings, is proof of an insensitive attitude. "What has been their public response to these people? Nothing," she says. "What does that say?"

School board Chairman J. Tyson Tildon said school officials have not been insensitive to the Walbrook community and have had several public discussions about the name change.

"But I think the very nature of change always engenders strong discussions and some dissent," he said. "I think that's what this is."

The Walbrook name debate has been growing since the school was reconfigured last summer as an independent public school, operated by city police and fire officials with an emphasis on training in police, fire and maritime skills.

Originally, the plan was to change the name to Baltimore Uniformed Services Academy, but it was amended to Walbrook Uniformed Services Academy to "respect the school's heritage," according to board member William C. Struever.

Walbrook Principal Andrey Bundley says the change was suggested as a way to indicate what's going on in the building. "We've made a lot of qualitative changes to the program here," Bundley says, "and I think they speak for themselves. But the name change would be a public way of stating those changes, I think."

The changes at Walbrook are stunning as well. Where students once roamed the halls when classes were in session and structure was difficult to identify, order is the norm. Hallways are clear and clean. Classrooms are quiet and businesslike.

Edgerton says that despite the welcome changes in the building, she sees no reason to support a name change. Edgerton points out that several other high schools house specialty academies, but their names haven't been changed.

"I think they ought to just concentrate on making the real changes in the school, and leave the name alone. What difference does it make to them?"

She says the compromise on the name change doesn't make much difference to her.

"It should be Walbrook Senior High, period," she said. "What if the uniform academy leaves in a couple of years, then are you going to change it again? The school's name is bigger than the program."

Mildred Forehand remembers picking up trash to help clean up the site for the school at Walbrook Junction in the early 1970s. She has lived in Windsor Hills for more than 30 years, and has seen the neighborhood evolve around the school.

She fought alongside her neighbors to have the school built so it could be an anchor for change in an area blighted by rundown houses and some businesses that did little for the neighborhood. She helped lead the effort to keep the school open in the late 1980s after asbestos was found in the building and the school board decided to tear it down to make way for new condominiums. The neighborhood groups -- not the school board, Forehand recalls -- found the money and brought political pressure to get the asbestos cleaned out and the children back into the building.

A name change, she says, is equivalent to trampling that history.

"If you forget your past, you are liable to misuse your present, and possibly abuse your future," she said. "If you don't respect what has gone into the development of something, you won't treat it properly when you have it."

School board member Patricia Morris, who was not at the board meeting two weeks ago when the Walbrook issue was discussed, said she understands the passions Edgerton and Forehand feel and is not sure it's wise to ignore them.

"That's really a neighborhood born of the school, and I'm not convinced that a name change is needed for the school to grow in a positive way," Morris said. "If we can make the school better without changing the name, then maybe we ought to consider that."

Morris said she will follow up on the Walbrook issue with board members and people in the community to see if a compromise is possible.

Tired of 'outsiders'

Sims-El says residents of Walbrook and other areas are beginning to tire of "outsiders" changing things without regard for those who came before them.

"It's the same thing every time," she said. "Someone comes in with a new idea and shows no respect for the ideas that are already there. They strip away the history. What they should be doing is using the strength and brain power in the community to make what they're doing better. That's where we have to get to."

School board member Struever said the board wants that kind of relationship.

"We all know we have to work together to provide the best for our children," Struever said. "We know the community is a big part of that. We respect that, and we're trying. I think in some ways, we just have to do a better job of letting people know that."

Pub Date: 1/28/99

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