The little middle school that could


ARNOLD - It started, as these kinds of stories often do, with an ordinary person who never dreamed of doing anything extraordinary. In this story, that person is Dee McCreary, a 29-year language arts instructor at Magothy River Middle School, a teacher who was so busy helping her students find a role model she didn't realize she'd become one.

The story begins in 1991, when the parent of one of McCreary's pupils encouraged her to go to Johns Hopkins Medical Center and hear the famous pediatric neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson give a motivational speech to schoolchildren. What Carson said that day struck a chord with McCreary. Hadn't she also taught her students to think big? Hadn't she told generations of sixth-graders if only they were nice to others, the others would be nice to them?

McCreary was so moved by Carson, his work and his story, that she set out to bring children to his message. That following school year, the first-year educators implemented the state's service learning requirement, she came up with the idea for her kids to make books for Carson's patients. And for the next couple of years, her students emptied their pocket change into a pretzel jug on her desk, and they collected enough money to donate toys, Little Tykes furniture and VCRs. The amounts raised never surprised McCreary. Not yet.

Like many middle-school teachers, she has taken students to Baltimore to see Carson in person. She has taken kids to Columbia to see the play based on his life. She taped the title of one of his three books, Think Big, behind her desk. And at the beginning of the academic term, she quotes him: "When I was in the fifth grade, I thought I was dumb, and I acted like a dumb person, and I achieved like a dumb person. When I was in the seventh grade, I thought I was smart, and I acted and achieved accordingly."

Within a few years, the pretzel jugs had moved outside language arts, into other classrooms. Magothy raised $1,234.88 in the 1997-1998 school year, and $1,878.88 the next. The word endowment never came up. Not yet.

The third year was the year Carson and his wife, Candy, decided the scholarships they'd established in Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C., should evolve. Carson challenged McCreary and her pupils to raise $15,000 to endow a scholar at their school. Fifteen schools have privately funded Carson scholarship endowments, but if Magothy students raised the money, they'd be the first to endow one of their own. They would guarantee that a Magothy student receive $1,000 to be invested until he or she went to college. The scholarship requires the winning student to have a grade-point average of 3.75 and a passion for helping others, but that didn't matter. Plenty of kids without the grades to even apply went to work.

Pretzel jugs spread everywhere, into guidance, into the main office. Students searched for coins under sofa cushions and on the floor of their family's cars. They offered baby-sitting money, Christmas and birthday money, money their grandparents sent for them to spend on themselves.

They brought their lunch to language arts to count and roll coins, stayed after school, and held the door for McCreary when she parked at the curb and lugged sacks of coins to the Allfirst Bank branch in Bay Hills.

Kids sold paper flowers and picture frames they made and brownies they baked. The third year was the year Magothy wrote a check for $3,330. That was the year parents offered McCreary checks on her way to the check presentation. One threw in $300, another $500, and later someone gave her $1,200 from a business account.

It was in the fourth year when McCreary had the idea to sponsor a benefit supper catered by Chevy's Mexican Restaurant. It was the push to get them over the $15,000 hump. Middle-schoolers sold tickets for 550 people, they made tissue-paper flowers for the tables, they got out their batons and came up with a routine to entertain diners. The kids in the chamber orchestra group practiced "Pachelbel's Canon," the ones in the wind ensemble readied for a clarinet rag, the Irish Dancers rehearsed "Haymaker's Jig." The effort grew so large the dinner spilled into Severn River Middle School's cafeteria, and for the first time, McCreary doubted. She feared she'd thought too big.

There was a celebration when Chevy's night was over, when the fourth year's check was written, for $8,755.23. Carson came to Arnold a few months later to make the announcement, to say Magothy River had raised the money to endow its own Ben Carson scholar - and with $1,000 to spare.

But as is often the case in these kinds of stories, the story is not over when it's over. McCreary and her students are taking the extra money and applying it toward a second endowment for a second scholarship at their school. Their goal is to raise enough for three, one for every grade. The price of an endowment has risen since McCreary started. It's now $25,000 apiece, but that doesn't deter McCreary.

Not yet.

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