If you'd walked into the kindergarten class at the City Neighbors Charter School in Northeast Baltimore last week, the scene would have pretty much summed up what education should be about.
A few children were playing in a sandbox. A couple of girls played with dolls. Two girls sat at a table drawing pictures. At another table, three boys slapped down mega-sized playing cards on a table, taking turns collecting the tricks they'd won.
"We have a play-based kindergarten," said Bobbi Macdonald, a co-founder of the school who also volunteers as the board president of City Neighbors. "We believe 5-year-olds learn best through play."
Hmm. Learn best through play. I watched the three boys playing cards and thought back to when I was 5 years old. (We're talking 50 years, for those who are wondering.) Didn't I learn a lot about numbers, shapes, addition and multiplication by playing card games like 21 blackjack and 500 rummy?
I sure did. And even if I hadn't learned anything, playing those games didn't do me any harm, either.
They're certainly not doing students at City Neighbors any harm, if the school's test scores are any indication. Started during the 2004-2005 school year, City Neighbors enrolls students in kindergarten through seventh grade. For the school year that just ended, sixth-graders at City Neighbors scored higher than the city and state averages on both the reading and math Maryland School Assessments tests.
MSA reading scores were higher than the city average for grades three, four and five. Only the math scores for City Neighbors third-graders and fourth-graders were below the city average.
Macdonald said City Neighbors achieves those scores by teaching core subjects, with a heavy emphasis on the arts.
"The arts are alive here, in all the classrooms," Macdonald said. While City Neighbors might have test scores higher than the city average, Macdonald emphasized that "we're not stopping the arts, not stopping the music to get those test scores."
Audrey Gatewood, 12, a seventh-grader who's in her second year at City Neighbors, said she's "very into the arts." In fact, she left Calvary Lutheran, a private school, to attend City Neighbors because of the school's emphasis on the arts.
"The private school was very bland," Audrey said.
Twelve-year-old Lexei Gleason, sitting next to Audrey at a table in the cafeteria, told me that she and Audrey are best friends. So it should be no surprise that Lexei also is heavily into the arts. Lexei, also a seventh-grader, was recently cast as Juror No. 4 in Twelve Angry Jurors -- an updated version of the television drama, movie and stage play Twelve Angry Men. City Neighbors students also have performed in Annie, A Comedy of Errors and King Lear.
What's not to love about City Neighbors Charter School? Seventh-graders rocking Shakespeare will surely please those traditionalists who probably thought his plays weren't being taught in public schools anymore. The high test scores should encourage all those concerned about the state of education in Baltimore. Students love the outings that have them camping in the woods and taking field trips to New York City.
And the school's racial composition will absolutely delight the Diversity Police.
"How many other Baltimore City public schools are as diverse as City Neighbors?" Macdonald asked.
Macdonald said that with the seventh grade being added this school year, City Neighbors now has a 176-member student body, 54 percent of them African-American. (According to www.mdreportcard.org, City Neighbors had 152 students for the 2006-2007 school year for kindergarten through sixth grade. There were 82 African-Americans, 69 whites and one Hispanic.)
Students from all over town can apply to City Neighbors. Joanne Grier lives in West Baltimore near where Gwynns Falls Parkway intersects with Braddish Avenue. Her grandson, Justus Grier, is a sixth-grader at City Neighbors, but Joanne Grier had thought it would be tough to get in.
"I thought he wasn't going to be accepted because the school was in a different zone," Joanne Grier said. But the luck of the draw was with her: Macdonald said all City Neighbors students are accepted by a "straight lottery."
Once Justus got in, there was the little matter of Joanne Grier getting him to the Northeast Baltimore school from West Baltimore. That problem was solved when the parents of another student at City Neighbors, who live close by, agreed to let Justus stay at their home overnight so they could see that he got to school.
City Neighbors is on the grounds of Epiphany Lutheran Church, which rents the space to the school for $1 a year, Macdonald said.
That's quite a bargain, considering the education those youngsters are getting.
Find Gregory Kane's column archive at baltimoresun.com/kane