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A place to grow

The Baltimore Sun

Looking around, this is not where one might expect to find inspiration about Baltimore's future. A vacant lot, tired-looking rowhouses, an old industrial site, a defunct school used most recently as a homeless shelter.

But there we were on a warm Saturday morning, in the geographic center of the city - a neighborhood whose main landmark is a graveyard - about 100 sweaty parents and 25 restless kids in a stuffy room of what was once Mildred Monroe Elementary.

We gathered during a season of rebirth to plant a seed of change. We were there to grow a school.

Get Allison Shechter talking about it, and it's not easy to stop her. "We're teaching children to be a part of their community and their world," says Ms. Shechter, principal of the future Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School, which will open in August for pre-kindergarten through fourth grade.

The classrooms are dingy shells that weeks ago housed some of Baltimore's most desperate. But Ms. Shechter pictures a grassy yard full of children playing. She hears music drifting through the corridors. She rhapsodizes about "child-centered learning," about sealing cracked asphalt and about students helping to prepare meals of locally grown food.

As she speaks, her soon-to-be students bounce around the soon-to-be school library. There's nothing to read there and nowhere to sit, but a parent has volunteered to build shelves. Others will contribute books. Many more will donate their time, money and energy.

This building stopped serving students years ago, a victim of long-declining faith in the city and its schools. Charles Bennett had a front-row seat to that slump. "I'm a product of the city school system, and I'm not too happy with the city schools," said Mr. Bennett, whose son Kalil, 3, is on the waitlist for the new school's preschool program.

There are plenty of reasons for such discontent. But stop by 1600 Guilford Avenue this afternoon, and you'll find people in work clothes - Baltimoreans of all races, ages and religions - slapping a fresh coat of paint on an old building in a transitional neighborhood. Some people aren't satisfied with being dissatisfied.

Take a few cans of paint, add a dash of chutzpah, and mix in a philosophy developed to teach poor Italian kids a century ago (but mainly used these days in expensive private schools) and you get one recipe for growing a school. It's not a formula for saving public education in Baltimore. Most schools in this city will never be charter schools, and few will adopt the Montessori approach; mixed-aged groupings, an open-ended curriculum and a "no homework" policy are not for everyone.

Still, the parents, teachers and students of Baltimore Montessori Public Charter School will be doing a lot of thinking and growing and fumbling and problem-solving to figure out how to make this thing work. We have a lot to learn, but maybe the rest of the city can learn something from us, too.

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