Beyond the traditional model

The Baltimore Sun

Sharon L. Harris found out she would lead Baltimore County's first public charter school, Imagine Discovery, this spring, when she was an assistant principal at Windsor Mill Middle.

Harris, 49, hasn't stopped moving since, selecting teachers (about 30), picking uniforms (yellow and navy blue) and fielding questions from anxious parents. Imagine Discovery serves more than 450 kindergarten-through-fourth-grade students, with plans to expand to eighth grade. Imagine Schools, an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit with more than 70 schools and about 37,000 students, operates the school.

She has a bachelor's degree in political science and studio art and two master's degrees, an M.A. in teaching in history and secondary education, and an M.S. in supervision and administration.

Before coming to Maryland, where were you?

I was in New York. I was the principal of an alternative school. The school actually was closing, which gave me a good opportunity to figure out what to do, and we decided to move. ... We moved to Maryland because that's where all my family is, and I got a job as an assistant principal at Windsor Mill.

Had you taught elementary school before?

Most of my career is middle school. Five years was high school, and all the rest of it was middle school. But the thing that I understood the most is ... the issues that we deal with in middle school. If we could catch them in elementary school, by the time they get to middle school, all the great stuff you can do with them, you can [do] already. The routines are set, and the processes are already in full bloom.

How did the charter school appeal to you?

It was literally the best of both worlds. It's part of Baltimore County, it's an Imagine school, and we really run like a magnet school. So we have an amazing identity of both, but we haven't lost the support of either. We've actually gained the support from both sides, and yet we could do some things that the traditional public school couldn't do - and that's what I like. For example, our uniforms. It's not just a shirt and pants; it's like from the head to the toe, down to the socks, and it makes a difference. When you look at these little kids ... you don't know who's wealthy, who's poor. You don't know who has learning disabilities and who doesn't. ... We look at them now addressing their specific needs, rather than judging them.

This is an "art infusion" school, where the students will learn about different kinds of music and other arts. Why did you choose that?

I think that children learn better when they are involved with music and art. They can express themselves in varied ways. Writing is difficult sometimes for kids, but if they can express themselves in other ways, then that helps to develop their skills. ...

What did you personally do as a teacher that you felt was important?

I did some things that were kind of unconventional. I thought, this was my stage. And this was an opportunity for me to make learning social studies - because kids hate social studies - real. So I would act it out a lot for the kids, and have the kids act it out. I had children sit down and really have conversations about what the topic was. For example, let's take the Middle Passage. I'd show a clip from Amistad, showing how the slaves were packed into the ship - and then have the children write a slave's log, from different points of view. ... I tried to make the topics real.

What do you try to impart to your teachers that reflects your own philosophy?

It's important to get to know who your students are, because if you don't get to know your students, you don't know where to take them. [As a teacher,] I would also have lunch groups. I had to bring my own lunch every day, because, sure enough, some children would show up and say, "Can we have lunch with you?" We might discuss a book; we might even discuss a personal issue. We might even discuss nothing, just silly stuff, or talk about a movie we saw. Or they might want to do homework, or get extra help.

A lot of teachers [at Imagine Discovery] have their college or university flags above the door. Was that something you encouraged?

Yes. Because I want the children to know that every time they walk inside a classroom, they're walking into a college. ... I want them to know that going to college is important, and going to college is part of your life. That's what you're supposed to do.

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